Politics & Society

Jennifer Granholm’s Legacy Up For Debate

Michigan Governor Granholm

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was elected in 2002 as the first woman to lead the state. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

Years before Barack Obama said change had come, a similar message echoed along the halls of Michigan’s state government.

And it was brought by the first female governor in the state’s history – term-limited Democrat Jennifer Granholm, 51.

The Canadian-born Granholm moved with her family to California when she was 4-years-old and she spent her teen years trying to launch an acting career.

She wound up working as a tour guide, and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1980. She eventually morphed into a graduate of Harvard Law School, married a Michigan native and served as an assistant U.S. attorney in her husband’s home state.

I first interviewed her when she was elected as a newly minted state attorney general in 1998. I found her to be energetic, charismatic and, as many political observers said at the time, a likely standard-bearer for Michigan Democrats hoping for a candidate to replace outgoing GOP Governor John Engler.

Unlike her hoped-for career in Hollywood, Granholm’s political star skyrocketed. One four-year term as attorney general later, she became governor of Michigan – and walked into a financial firestorm.

The hard-hit Midwest manufacturing base meant Michigan had been losing jobs for years before Granholm’s ascension. The state’s economic backbone – the auto industry – increasingly struggled. Eventually it collapsed amid an overall meltdown in the nation’s overall financial markets.

“She was dealt probably the worst hand of any incoming Michigan governor in the last half-century,” said a man who has followed the state government for decades, Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

But Ballenger told me recently that Granholm’s status as a political neophyte hasn’t helped during her eight years in office.

“Granholm simply didn’t have enough experience in politics and government to be expected to be a strong governor,” Ballenger said. “She never got the hang of working with the legislature, whether it was controlled by Republicans or Democrats. And the relationship never got any better.”

Facing huge budget deficits every year and an economic climate that struggled well before most of the rest of the nation, Granholm began pushing to transition Michigan from its historic reliance on the auto industry.

She created a “Cool Cities” initiative designed to make Michigan municipalities fashionable to young people and corporate interests. She touted transforming old factories into environmentally friendly facilities producing green technology. And she pushed for an increased emphasis on post-secondary education while appointing a financial manager to rid the Detroit Public School system of corruption and wasteful spending.

Yet Ballenger and other political analysts say among many Michigan voters Granholm has become synonymous with the state’s “Lost Decade” of rising unemployment and population exodus.

During the recent campaign season many GOP candidates have aired advertisements placing Granholm’s picture next to President Obama’s, casting them both as officials who push for “tax increases and job-killing policies,” even though Granholm has regularly traveled overseas while governor to try and lure new business investment to the state.

She has appeared often with Obama administration officials, serving as a member of the president’s transition team and regularly reciting the benefits of the federal government’s auto bailout and TARP funding in general for Michigan.

Yet Inside Michigan Politics’ Ballenger doubts that profile will translate into a cabinet post or eventual seat on the U.S. Supreme Court – two jobs Granholm has been rumored to be a finalist for in the past.

“Sadly, I’d say she doesn’t really have a legacy at this point,” Ballenger adds. “It’s conceivable that in the next decade or two things may manifest in Michigan that people will say happened because Granholm set it in motion. But that hasn’t happened yet, and may not.”

So in many ways, Granholm’s future remains as uncertain as the economy of the state she’s governed for the past eight years.

Quinn Klinefelter is Senior News Editor and Host for Detroit NPR member station WDET-FM.

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