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Whitmer’s second legacy challenge

If they are really lucky, Michigan governors have to confront only one unscheduled challenge that could shape their long-term legacy.

Unfortunately for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 15 months into her tenure, she is already working on number two.

In January 2019, only days into her journey, a polar vortex engulfed the state and, in the middle of that, Consumers Energy saw one of its most critical supply links go up in smoke. A fire shut down a pumping station that impacted Consumers’ million-plus customers who could not get more heat to combat the windchill temps of -30 degrees.

Unable to get 60% of its natural gas from its underground tanks because the utility did not have an emergency backup pumping system, the governor swung into action, pleaded with residentss to dial down the thermostat, and miraculously, that worked, and a true human calamity was avoided.

“I was losing sleep over that,” the governor recalls, “as people could have died.”

But she dodged the first bullet of her infant reign.

She is now, ironically, saying the same thing as she confronts an even greater threat to the health and safety of her residents: COVID 19, the disease caused by the coronavirus spreading around the world.

Not one to idly sit around and wait for things to change, she jumped into action. She opened the state’s emergency center and called for “all hands on deck” as she got everyone from state and local government on the same page.

At that point, Michigan was still in the minority of states that did not have a single case. She warned everyone, however, that “it was not a question of if, but a question of when” that would change. Days later, it did.

The count started at two cases. One in Wayne County and the other in Oakland County.

As of Monday afternoon, the number of confirmed cases was 53.

As part of her strategy, the governor was visible, going on the tube statewide to update everyone on where we were and what was being done.

The easy part was strongly reminding everyone to wash their hands, don’t touch their face, do fist bumps, not hand pumps, etc., etc.

A tougher decision was to shutter the schools for three weeks until April 6.

That was a shift in gears as, weeks ago, the state school superintendent sent a memo to schools, explaining that any decision to close would be a “local control” move based on what local health departments and local school superintendents concluded.

Then, when the virus head count jumped to 12, the governor chucked local control as she announced the statewide closings with an executive order.

Having made that decision, she proclaimed to worried parents that her top priority during this time was to make sure we “feed the kids.” Thousands of needy family children get two squares a day from the schools, and, with the buildings closed, how would they be fed? She did not immediately address that little challenge, but, the day after her decision, the state Education Department got on the horn to the Trump administration.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had a rule: The school breakfast and lunch program can only be administrated inside the school. The state asked for a waiver, and, within a day, the feds granted the request so the kids could be fed.

But how?

There were two alternatives: Create a centralized location in each school district where parents could get the food, much like the free water system that former Gov. Rick Snyder established in Flint during his crisis with lead in the water.

The other choice was to load the food on the buses and let the drivers make their daily rounds, dropping off the food at each stop along the way.

While there has been some partisan sniping unfolding in the nation’s capital over how to address the human health threat, there’s been very little of that in this town.

Over the weekend, the Senate majority leader, Republican Mike Shirkey, issued a statement in full support of the governor’s school closing decision. He noted it was a tough call, but quickly added that, after she had consulted with leaders, it was the right call.

His statement was the right thing at the right time, which helped to send the signal to a concerned citizenry that state government was on duty. And, days earlier, on a strong bipartisan vote, lawmakers approved an additional $75 million to beef up the virus testing program and sock $15 million aside for unforeseen events that will undoubtedly unfold as this drama trudges on.

However, the governor’s unilateral decision to ban any gatherings over 250 persons, with the intent to limit human contact, which is her underlying strategy, drew ire from state Rep. Beau LaFave from the Upper Peninsula.

He is a shoot-from-the-lip kinda guy, and is not a big fan of the guv, and he felt her restrictions were a violation of the state constitution. One of the governor’s supporters shot back that it would be a good idea if there was a law to prevent Mr. LaFave from meeting with anyone.

In these uncharted waters, governors must be nimble, yet circumspect at the same time. Those are two masters that are difficult to serve. There is no playbook to follow, which is why leadership moxie is so vital to the eventual outcome.

So far on the moxie scale, Whitmer is doing well.

But who knows what is next.

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