Reflecting on the past year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told attendees at a virtual MEA-PAC event on Friday that we are “still in the tunnel,” but there is light at the end, and “the commitment I’ve made is centered around supporting you and the kids you help every single day.”
“The teachers and the incredible support staff in our schools are working long hours and doing it under unimaginable stressors,” she said. “I’m in awe of your dedication, and so grateful.”
Whitmer appeared at the MEA-PAC fundraiser near the end of an unusual weeklong MEA Winter Conference in which virtual training sessions were held in evenings and on Saturday. She was joined at the event by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California.
The governor’s appearance also followed a party-line vote in the state House on Thursday when Republican lawmakers voted to hold federal COVID-relief monies hostage to their demand that the state Department of Health and Human Services give up authority to close schools in a health emergency.
Whitmer vowed to continue pursuing “an agenda that speaks to the majority,” balancing health and safety, improving vaccine distribution, and supporting schools and the economy.
“I don’t have the luxury of just throwing punches,” she said. “I’ve got to get things done, and I’m acutely aware of how important it is that coming out of this crisis we’ve got support for our educators and our kids and for people who’ve been out of work and small businesses that have been struggling.”
Late last week, the state House passed a supplemental spending bill that withholds $1.8 billion in federal funding that Congress sent to Michigan schools in December unless the Whitmer administration gives up the state health department’s authority to close schools for public health emergencies.
The Republican leadership’s political gamesmanship with money meant to help school districts address health and safety amid a deadly pandemic has been the subject of an MEA call to action. Add your voice today.
“Everything from the supplemental I’m trying to get passed to the budget that I’ll be introducing in the next week is focused on supporting your ability to meet our kids’ needs, and that includes mental and physical health,” Whitmer said, acknowledging worries over increasing educator shortages.
“(Republican leaders) can play games or do nothing, but I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to deliver on the things that I ran on, and those are the fundamentals that everyone cares about. I will continue to seek that ground.”
While running for office two years ago, she never could have predicted having to confront a global pandemic with an uncooperative state Legislature and a (formerly) combative White House, while dealing with death threats from militant white supremacists.
“Even on the hardest days, and there have been some, I’m grateful to be here,” she said. “We will get through this.”
Both Whitmer and Stabenow expressed gratitude for the work of MEA members to elect President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and to re-elect U.S. Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan.
Stabenow appeared on the heels of an all-night legislative session at the Capitol in which the newly elected vice president cast the deciding procedural vote on a third COVID relief package aimed at “building back better,” the veteran U.S. Senator from Michigan noted.
“There are lots of reasons why it was really important what we did in the election in Michigan last year, but one of them was on display this morning when we were able to get a critical package to really lean in on vaccines and health care and (COVID) testing and education and helping people,” Stabenow said.
“Think about that,” she said. “We wouldn’t have had the narrow margin of victory if Gary Peters hadn’t won, so the fact that we were so organized and involved, with everyone leaning in to do everything they possibly could, it made a difference. And it’s going to make a difference.”
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, Democrats are focused on delivering resources to address hunger and support education, health care, mental health and substance abuse services in communities across the country, Stabenow said.
“There’s a lot on our plate – a lot to do – but you have helped create the way for us to have the tools to do it. We kept it going after 2018, knowing 2020 was going to be tough, and thank goodness we did. We had the highest voter turnout in the history of Michigan.”
In 2022, the focus will be on midterm Congressional races, the governor’s contest, and winning seats in the state House and Senate that will determine control of the Legislature, she said.
“My final pitch is we have to do it again. I’m not on the ballot in 2022, but it feels like I am because everything we’ve talked about here tonight will be on the ballot. MEA has been fabulous, and all of you have been wonderful, so let’s keep it going.”
Congresswoman Karen Bass also thanked MEA members for helping to decide the national election that ended the term of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. “It’s a new day,” said the six-term representative and immediate past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
With an educator in the Education Department and an advocate in the White House, decisions will be made that respect educators.
“I feel very hopeful with a president and a first lady who are deeply committed to public education, that we can begin to set the ship right and move forward on the part of our kids,” Bass said.
All three of the evening’s guests reminded educators to stay in touch with elected leaders to communicate the needs of schools and children when the immediate threat of the pandemic subsides.
Most importantly, Bass noted, stay involved. “Hopefully we all understand now the significance of voting, but voting is not enough. Getting involved with your PAC, getting involved with the MEA, that’s what really counts.”