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ICYMI: North Carolina Gov. Cooper and Michigan Gov. Whitmer Discuss How Their Leadership in Divided States Can Be A Roadmap for Biden to Unite the Country

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“We need aggressive healing, a strong voice that will continue to understand that diversity is our strength.”

The challenges facing the Biden-Harris administration are like nothing any president-elect has seen since the Great Depression. A global pandemic has wrought havoc on our economy and our health, and the American people seem more divided than ever.

For a roadmap on how to tackle these tough issues and unite the nation, the incoming administration should look no further than Democratic governors in red and purple states, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who have managed to succeed in exceedingly difficult terrain.

Gov. Whitmer and Gov. Cooper spoke to Politico recently about building coalitions and working across the aisle to get things done, as well as what it will take to heal the country after Trump and the pandemic. Both governors agreed that while it can be challenging at times, it’s important to keep open lines of communication with lawmakers and focus on “dinner-table” issues that appeal to the majority of Americans.

Read the interviews with Gov. Whitmer and Gov. Cooper below.

Politico: ‘We need aggressive healing’: How governors are leading divided states

President-elect Joe Biden is about to inherit a situation that governors in politically divided states know all too well.

He’ll assume the presidency in a country that’s not only divided about how to control the coronavirus but also about how to emerge from the pandemic-related economic downturn, how and whether to reopen schools and how to prevent future virus outbreaks.

Governors in the nation’s two dozen states with divided governments or divided electorates worked through this dynamic for much of 2020 as their policies angered constituents and colleagues alike.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan sued Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her emergency orders. In North Carolina, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sued Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over his executive orders. In Louisiana and Kansas, Democratic governors sued Republican state lawmakers over efforts to limit their pandemic powers.

The lawsuits are just one symptom of the deep partisan fracture in the U.S. that was seen on Election Day, when the majority of voters in 25 states cast ballots for Biden and majorities in another 25 states cast ballots for Donald Trump.

“It’s really been kind of ugly — the rhetoric,” Whitmer, the target of an alleged kidnapping plot, said in an interview.

Still, Whitmer continues to meet with Republican lawmakers regularly. “I know we have zero shot of finding common ground if we’re not even talking to each other,” she said.


As part of The Fifty, a series that examines the role of state and local leaders in America today, POLITICO asked governors from the country’s most divided states to discuss how they’ve dealt with these challenges and how Biden, too, can unite the country. No Republicans accepted our invitation, but Whitmer and Cooper both agreed to interviews.

Here are their perspectives, edited for length and clarify:

Polarized America

You have been sued and our country feels really polarized right now. There is so much resistance to Covid orders and you both govern in states where both Republicans and Democrats are in charge. How are you working with members of the opposite party in this environment?

Whitmer: This last year has been really hard with Covid. Once the president put the spotlight on me, it kind of changed my politics on the ground here. Unfortunately, not for the better. So it’s going to be challenging, but I’m absolutely determined to do everything that we can to get an agenda accomplished. And it’s got to be centered by what the vast majority of people care about. That’s why I keep going back to those dinner table issues.

We have continued to hold conversations [with Republican lawmakers] every other week. We’ve kept the schedule even when the legislature was suing me. We’ve been doing that virtually because they don’t subscribe to the same mask wearing that I do. Even when those conversations are hard, they’re still happening. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun, but it’s essential.

Cooper: You have to rely on cooperation and you have to have an ability to put yourself in the other shoes to try to figure out where they are coming from. A lot of us have the same goals of wanting a great future for our kids and good paying jobs and having clean water when you turn on the tap. Sometimes in a state — a purple state that’s divided — sometimes our people do that intentionally to try to make sure that one is a check on the other.

I think you have to be satisfied continuing to get four yards on every play and making sure you get a first down instead of the long bomb. And eventually you can get where you need to go. But sometimes it takes a little longer.


What happens now? How can we all come together when the country is so divided?

Whitmer: I believe that this election was really about coalitions of people coming together to plot a new course in America. The other piece, though, that I think that we have to be very mindful of and thoughtful and intentional about is understanding that there still was 70 some million people who voted for Donald Trump. We have to understand what motivates people as we develop an agenda so that every American can see something of a value in that. For some, it’s probably not possible, but I think for the majority, we should be working hard to try.

Cooper: I think it’s been made much more difficult now for a couple of reasons. One is social media, which continues to amplify the loudest, most stringent voices, and in addition, the hyper partisan gerrymandering that’s in place that draws very blue and very red districts and elects members to state legislatures and members of Congress that don’t have political incentive to compromise and to move forward, although I believe they have the moral incentive to do that simply because they are elected representatives.

I think we have to appeal to that everyday person. We have to do what we think is right, even though we may have to stand up to some loud voices in our own parties in order to get something done. And I hope we can do that because we have a lot to do. There’s a lot to repair.

We need aggressive healing, a strong voice that will continue to understand that diversity is our strength. That will help us heal, but also being aggressive in the things that we need to do to get help to people right now.