Catch a Rising Star

Five years ago, Jennifer Granholm '87 was a political unknown. Now she is working nonstop on the campaign trail to get people to know her, believe in her, and make her the next governor of Michigan.

Fall 2002

We should have met her at McDonald's, Jennifer Granholm's driver says when a photographer and I arrive at the Ingham County Health Department in Lansing. That's what other reporters have done, and it's foolproof because that's where she usually starts her day in the public world--and sometimes ends her day and sometimes stops in between. Instead, we had planned to ride with her and her staff to Lansing after meeting them at 6:15 a.m. in her Livonia campaign office. We waited there until the communications director, who arrived past 7 a.m., told us, "There's been a miscommunication." And then we were chasing Granholm, who was already in Lansing, driving faster than we should and not quite knowing where to go, when a car in front of us in the fast lane veered and spun so we could see the face of the confused and terrified driver and we slammed to a stop and so did the car behind us.

Just as our heart rates went down to 100 or so, the cell phone rang. It was supposed to be the communications guy calling to give us precise directions. But it was Granholm, apologizing profusely for the mistake--their mistake, she said.

"There's just something about her," the driver, Jerome Marks, says about the woman whose campaign he has volunteered for, the attorney general of the state of Michigan who has catapulted from political obscurity to the threshold of the governor's office. In the Democratic primary on August 6, three weeks from this day, Granholm '87 will face former Michigan governor James Blanchard and Congressman David Bonior, a former House whip--formidable, experienced competitors who were making their marks on the state before she got her first mark in law school. But if the 43-year-old candidate is intimidated, she doesn't show it over the course of a 15-hour day on the campaign trail filled with newspaper and TV interviews, fund-raisers, and policy meetings. It's today's way to get the message out, though she hardly sees a random, ordinary Joe or Jane Voter all day. "You should have been at the rally last night," one of her aides says later in the day. There were a couple hundred people, speakers blaring Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." When Granholm made her entrance, "it was like a rock star walked into the room," the aide says. People just wanted to touch her, she adds. And Granholm just wants to touch them.

In a roundtable of health department officials, Granholm is so focused on the people whose world is public health that not one flicker of distress crosses her face when one of them talks about how they would handle an E. coli outbreak at McDonald's and the intestinal catastrophes that would result. "Talk to me about the vertical partnerships you've established," she says. She speaks about "FQHCs" and "vulnerable populations" and "best practices." And there are lots of "ahs," the recognition that she is one of them, that she has worked on it and has learned and is not going to walk into a room full of health officials or educators or businesspeople or union reps without knowing their language, without caring about what they care about.

She can just as comfortably and credibly walk into bohemian lofts and avant-garde galleries in a renovated section of Lansing and pronounce them "cool" places. Someone asks if she means that the temperature's lower there than in the blistering heat outside. That's true, she says, but what she means is cool, like a great place to hang out in.

In Lansing, the state capital, Mayor David Hollister has thrown his support to Granholm, despite the urging of many state Democrats to stay neutral in the race. On a tour that highlights the renewal of his city, he talks about why he has.

"She's tough. She's smart," he says. "I think she'll be a symbol for our next generation of workers. I think she will be a real invigorating element in our body politic. It's hands down, it's not even close, in her ability to communicate and energize people."

Local observers have compared her to Bill Clinton, charmed with the ability to connect with people of different ages, backgrounds, races, and cultures. She does it physically: winking, touching people's arms, hugging them, looking into their eyes, and using their names; and she even does it vocally: modulating tones from a whisper that draws you closer to a thumping crescendo that makes you sit up. She does it also by connecting with people's values: touching on family, justice, and faith. During the course of the day, when we talk about the importance of religion in her life, she quotes Matthew in the Bible, chapter and verse. She speaks about her clerkship with Damon Keith, an African-American appeals court judge known as a champion of civil rights. She lived in Detroit, where, she recalls, she collected signatures for petitions on the Detroit school board when she was nine months pregnant. But she is also the new kind of Democrat exemplified by the former president, embracing a progressive social agenda while espousing belt-tightening in state government and "growing the economic base."

The comparison can be less flattering too; opponents have accused her of political expediency, of having an aversion to specifics, of lacking real convictions. But, she points out, she has more copiously detailed positions than any other candidate in the race. On the environment, health care, education, she has outlined hundreds of proposals throughout the campaign. She developed some of the ideas from just the kind of roundtables (another with educators came later) that she participates in today.

Most Harvard Law graduates, of course, don't have to defend their bona fides. But, because of where she was raised and what she looks like, Granholm--at least in this election--does.

The campaign is getting ugly, she says on the ride from Lansing to Flint, and she is not going to take it. "I'm not a weak person, and if I am hit, you better believe I will hit back," she says. There's much talk in this race about Michigan values, directed against the candidate, Granholm, from outside the state. One Bonior commercial rails against trash from Canada being dumped in Michigan. Granholm was born in Canada. And one of Blanchard's ads shows a coach who chooses the former Michigan governor for his team because "it's no time for rookies." Or, as she interprets it, "Don't let the girl into the boys' locker room."

She does not have the political experience of Blanchard, governor for two terms before the 12-year tenure of current Michigan Governor John Engler (who, because of term limits, cannot run again), or Bonior, who has served 13 terms in Congress. Yes, something can be said for experience, says Granholm, but in this case, it's "been there, done that."

"I always say if you want a career politician, I am not your man," says Granholm. "But if you want someone entirely different, who brings a different perspective, then you know I am that. I am not your typical candidate in Michigan. I understand that. But that is a good thing."

Indeed, being atypical has helped propel her to front-runner status in the weeks before the primary. Born in Vancouver, Granholm moved to California as a young girl and lived there until she came to HLS. The winner of a local beauty pageant, she went to Hollywood after high school, hoping, like so many others, to make it big in the movies. And though she couldn't act or sing or dance, Hollywood, in a way she never expected, did help her make it big.

"It was a pretty transformational experience being in L.A. because it was so clear that I was not going to be taken seriously unless I went to the best college that I could. And I knew at that moment I wanted to be a lawyer too," says Granholm. "I was just really turned off by the L.A. scene, particularly the way women were treated. I wanted to be the female Sir Laurence Olivier, and it wasn't going to happen. So it really propelled me to get very serious."

She read A History of Civilization between tours she gave at Universal Studios. She went to Berkeley, got all A's. At Harvard Law, she studied hard and she agitated hard. She proudly recalls being one of the HLS rabble-rousers, mid-'80s vintage: editing the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, protesting outside Derek Bok's office, demonstrating for Harvard University to disinvest in South Africa. At HLS, she converted to Catholicism, drawn by its tradition of social justice, she says.

She also met her husband, Dan Mulhern '86, in law school, and he, more than anyone, she says, deserves credit for where she is today. They moved to his home state of Michigan, where after her clerkship Granholm worked as a federal prosecutor and then became corporation counsel for Wayne County, which includes Detroit.

He convinced her to run for attorney general, in her first political race, which she narrowly won in 1998. With three young children, now 12, 11, and 5, she was loath to face the rigors of an election campaign. But Mulhern, whose job as a consultant allows him to be primary caregiver for the children, told her: This is the time; this is the place. You can't continue to exhort the children to service if you don't do it.

"It is his great selflessness that has enabled me to do what I do," Granholm says. "I would not be considering [running for governor] without not just his tolerance but his encouragement."

Once a reluctant political candidate, she is now a supremely confident one. The only question she will not even entertain is what she will do if she loses the race. She is going to win, she says. By all rights, she shouldn't, if political pedigree is any guide. But her campaign has taken on an aura of inevitability--the right person, the right woman, the right time. If elected, she would become the first woman governor of the state. As she campaigns, women and their daughters cheer, excited about change, says Granholm. And if her gender--in addition to her agenda--matters to people, that's not such a bad thing, she says.

"I really don't want anyone to vote for me because I am a woman or not because I am a woman," she says. "I want them to vote for me because I represent the best candidate. I best represent change, and I'll get it done. But it's not a terrible byproduct for our daughters and sons that they see the face of leadership doesn't always have to look the same. Sometimes it's black, sometimes it's brown, sometimes it wears lipstick."

In three weeks, she will win the Democratic primary with nearly as many votes as her two opponents combined.

Most of the day, she uses her car as a mobile office, with multiple cell phones connecting her to attorney general business and the business of running for office. We make one brief stop, however, at the attorney general's headquarters in Lansing, and see the mélange inside her office. There's a poster of Wonder Woman near an image of Mother Teresa; photos of her children, of Martin Luther King Jr., and of Granholm introducing Al Gore; a row of Beanie Babies and another of baseball caps from the ATF, the FBI, and the Detroit Tigers; and a framed print with Hebrew lettering, a passage from Leviticus, and the translation: "Thou shalt not stand idly by. . . ."

Many people from her office are volunteering for her campaign. They want her to be their client, not their boss, they joke. One assistant AG, Amy Krause, told me at an earlier event that Granholm would often come to her office after 5 p.m. to talk about cases, to talk as a colleague. She's inspirational, Krause said. But she's also one of us.

That's evident during a day in which she both grabs the spotlight and diffuses it. Attention is on her every moment, of course, but she is quick to call attention to others, to her staff and her employees and her family and even people who follow her around for the day: She actually introduces our photographer and me before one policy event. She treats us like guests in her home, making sure we eat right, offering me a ride to the airport.

And sometimes she struggles against the political necessity of bragging. Talking in her car, she says at one point that she thought Michigan needed her more than New York or California. Then she realizes that this may not sound right. It's not that Michigan needed her, she says; it's just that perhaps she could do more good here. During an interview at a television station in Flint, she speaks about being the first person in her family to go to college. "And I got to go to Harvard Law School," she says, "not because I'm smarter than everyone else, but because I worked like a dog."

She still does. Usually picked up at 6:30 a.m. for a day of campaigning, Granholm often gets home after 9 p.m. and then answers e-mails till past midnight. On this day, after two evening fund-raisers that end at 8:30 p.m., the schedule changes again. She needs to go to another television station and tape an interview. It's going to focus on personal things, the silky smooth anchorman says. She does talk about what she'd do as governor, and she criticizes Engler for packing the state court with strict constructionists. But she also talks about being a tomboy, playing basketball with her family. The one place she loves to be the most, she said earlier in the day, is on the side of her house in an Adirondack chair eating a Popsicle with her 5-year-old.

When it's over, after traveling around 300 miles, we pull up to the front door of her house at 9:32 p.m. She has called home three times since 7 p.m. from the back seat of her car--with me sitting next to her, her driver and an aide in front. The calls are intimate moments shared by necessity with nonintimates, like when actors have to change clothes in front of each other backstage. Except she's almost never offstage, no longer just Jennifer Granholm the wife, the mom, or even the attorney general. She's the candidate for governor, a regular gal and a Wonder Woman, a policy wonk and a beauty queen, a mentor, a role model, a trailblazer. She's anything you want her to be.

Nearly 12 hours earlier, a woman in a uniform, a community mental health worker, stopped Granholm in front of the health department. "You are beautiful," the woman said. "I can't wait to tell everyone at work. Our superwoman is here. Have no fear."

It's a moment that can only happen to a rock star.


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