Lansing native Gretchen Whitmer is more than just the Ingham County Prosecutor, she’s a pioneer for women in politics, both here in the state of Michigan and nationally. Practicing law, working as the state representative, holding the senate seat, acting as the senate Democratic leader and teaching at major Universities, are just a few of the hot items on her resume, and at age 44, she’s just getting started.
Currently in the position as the Ingham County Prosecutor, Whitmer’s job is to make vital decisions every day, including when to pursue charges on cases as well as working with her legal staff to set the direction and make improvements on important issues in the greater Lansing area. The Ingham county prosecutor’s office houses around 60 employees and processes about eight thousand cases per year, making it the largest prosecutor’s office in the state, and yet Whitmer, who began in this role on July 2, is more passionate about the work than intimidated by it.
“I was raised to appreciate that public service is important and a privilege,” said Whitmer. “I know it is an enormous responsibility. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve and I take it very seriously.”
Whitmer went to Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree, where she studied communications. She always loved sports and public speaking, so sports broadcasting was her original prospective career. While pursuing her undergrad, however, she had an internship at the capital that drastically changed her career path.
“It was that internship that really got me interested in politics and policy making,” said Whitmer. “It really instilled in me the understanding and belief that our voice is heard at the capital.”
After abandoning sports broadcasting, she furthered her education and pursued law school at Michigan State University, where, according to Whitmer, she hit her academic stride.
“I had been a mediocre student before and I really loved law school,” she said. “I actually graduated with honors, which amazes me.”
Her career path, while varied, has taken many twists and turns along the way; starting out practicing law for a few years and running for office in 2000. She was a state representative for three terms in the House of Representatives, in her second and third term, she sat as the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, overseeing the state budget. After six years working in the house, Whitmer ran for the senate seat, a position in which she worked for more than eight years, eventually becoming the senate Democratic leader, the highest ranking Democrat in the state.
After that run of a career in the legislature, Whitmer’s plan was to settle back into her legal practice while teaching at the University of Michigan in the policy school – and she did – for a while.
In the spring of 2016, a unique set of circumstances required the former Ingham County prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings III, to resign. After being encouraged by many community members to apply for the position, she was voted in unanimously.
“I think the most important thing is to win back the support of our community,” Whitmer said.
As does any successful, educated professional, Whitmer has a busy, stressful schedule and naturally, there are many challenges that come with that. The fact that she’s a woman, though, presents a completely different set of obstacles – particularly in legal and political matters. One example Whitmer was adamant about was lack of women “at the table.”
“There are simply too few women at the table, at least at the capital,” she said. “When I was the [senate Democratic] leader, I was one of only four women in the senate, which has 38 people. I used to tell people that there were more men named “John” than there were women. It’s kind of funny, but it’s sad because it’s actually true.”
Whitmer noted that by not having as many women in the mix in making these decisions, we might be missing out on “an important part of the dialogue,” that wouldn’t be present without women’s input.
According to npr.org, only 83 percent of the U.S.’s elected prosecutors are men. Going from a career in legislature, which is a male dominated industry, to a position as a prosecutor, also a male dominated field, Whitmer is changing Michigan’s political and legal norms – in a good way.
“In every environment where there’s more men than women, you encounter some [men] that are completely unphased by the gender difference and some that are threatened by it. The fact that I was elected leader in a male dominated industry, and the fact that I’m the first one, tells you that it hasn’t always been the case,” she said.
“Some men look at qualifications and some don’t. Being a woman has helped me give a voice to some that aren’t always considered. It has been difficult because I have been treated differently, but that only emboldens me.”
Another challenge that comes with being a woman and a busy professional is balancing work, family and home life. With two daughters, Sydney and Sherry, and three step sons, Alex, Mason and Winston, on top of engaging in her marriage and her career, it can be a lot.
“I do the best I can,” she said. “My family is my inspiration for everything I do just about. I just try to keep my priorities at the top of my list on how I spend my time.”
Her husband, Marc Mallory, her children and her parents are who she attributes her success to, however some of her “best practices” to success are exercise, meditation and taking notice of those moments where she feels that she’s really making a difference.
As one of the most prominent successful business women in the greater Lansing area, her advice to aspiring business women is simple: take risks.
“I don’t think I’m an inordinate risk taker,” said Whitmer. “I think we should encourage one another. More women need to run for office. The decisions that are made at the capital affect us each and every day, and our voices need to be heard.”