Pledging to build bridges and fix roads, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing Tuesday morning, becoming Michigan’s 49th governor. Whitmer is the second woman to ever hold the post.
Throughout her campaign, Whitmer focused on pragmatism and improving the state’s public institutions and infrastructure, commitments she referenced in her inaugural address before a crowd of several thousand people.
“We might live in divisive times, but Michigan’s problems are not partisan,” Whitmer said. “Potholes are not political, or better skills, or great schools for our kids. I will be a governor for everyone, and I am committed to working across party lines to ensure that all Michiganders have opportunity. That means rebuilding our roads and bridges, cleaning up our water and ensuring that everyone gets the education and skills they need to get a good paying job.”
Whitmer cautioned political leaders on both sides of the aisle to avoid partisanship.
“None of us can afford to compromise Michigan’s economic future because we won’t compromise with one another,” Whitmer said. “Divided government might make solving problems harder, but not impossible. We need to come together now, not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Michiganders.”
Whitmer succeeds term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder after defeating outgoing Attorney General Bill Schuette by ten points in the November election. A Democrat, she previously served as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from 2000 to 2006 and the Michigan Senate from 2006 to 2015, where she was the Senate minority leader for her last four years in the chamber. Whitmer served as Ingham County Prosecuter in 2016.
Michigan Supreme Court Justices Richard Bernstein and Elizabeth Clement swore Whitmer into office. The ceremony ushered in a Democratic and predominantly female takeover of the state’s highest political offices. Democrat Jocelyn Benson, the former dean of Wayne State University Law School, assumed the role of secretary of state. Benson called it a “new day for democracy” and promised to uphold voting rights as the state’s election officer.
Two Supreme Court justices, including newcomer Megan Kathleen Cavanagh, were sworn in, along with other appellate judges. Cavanagh’s father, retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh, sat on the bench for 32 years and administered the oath of office to his daughter, breaking into tears and hugging her after she finished reciting the pledge to uphold the state’s constitution.
Chief Justice Stephen Markman swore in Democrats Paul Brown and Jordan Acker as the newest additions to the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents. The board is now comprised of seven Democrats and just one Republican, an ideological shift not seen since the 1980s.
The incoming class of Democratic leadership includes several firsts. Former prosecutor Dana Nessel became Michigan’s first openly gay attorney general, following a campaign buoyed by support from the LGBTQ community. In her inaugural remarks, Nessel referenced attending the Women’s March in Lansing in January 2017.
“Two years ago, I stood on these same steps after marching with thousands of other women, demanding equality and representation, with the pledge that together we would create a state government that would hear and understand the voices of women in Michigan,” Nessel said. “Looking around here, seeing who is being sworn in today, I’d say that worked out pretty well.”
In 2012, Nessel was the lead attorney in a legal challenge to Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage — one of several cases that would eventually lead the U.S. Supreme Court to declare marriage equality nationwide. The judge who threw out Michigan's prohibition on same sex marriage in that case, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, swore Nessel into office.
Nessel said guaranteeing equal rights to all people regardless of their background or identity would be at the forefront of her work.
“I ran for this office on many issues, but for one simple reason — I wanted the people of Michigan to feel like they truly had a government that really cared about them again,” Nessel said. “And I wanted a government that cared equally about all the people of our state, irrespective of income, race, geography, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. We are all Michiganders and we are all entitled to equal protection under the law.”
Detroit political activist Garlin Gilchrist was sworn in as lieutenant governor, the first African-American in the state’s history to take on the role.
Gilchrist discussed honoring the legacy of hard work exemplified by people like his grandparents, who moved to Michigan from the deep South in search of a better life. He emphasized the necessity of collaboration to confront problems facing the state while applauding Michiganders for getting involved in the political process.
“Let us choose to leave no cry for help unheard, no call for empathy unanswered and no opportunity for collaboration on the table,” Gilchrist said. “Thank you to the millions of people who stepped up to participate in our Democratic process by voting, volunteering, conversing and caring about our state. We are all here thanks to you.”
Democrats officially claimed all the major statewide offices after being shut out of positions for years, but Whitmer’s administration still faces a state legislature controlled by Republicans.
Acknowledging the split in power, Whitmer recognized lawmakers from both parties in the audience and called for collaboration.
“I am so looking forward to working with you over the next weeks and months and years,” Whitmer said. “We may belong to different parties, but we are all here today for the same reason — we are proud Michiganders first and foremost, and we owe it to the people we serve to cast partisanship aside, to roll up our sleeves and to build bridges together.”