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“Smart and Reachable”

Jennifer Granholm’s long path to finding and leading Michigan

March 6, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Flanked at her February 8 State of the State address by two Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (left) and House Speaker Craig DeRoche, Democratic Governor Granholm proposed ambitious investments to rebuild Michigan’s economy.

Even at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm always looks fresh. Her energy, she says, probably comes from her father, Victor Ivar Granholm, the hardest-working man she knows.

“He was born in Penny, British Columbia, to a Norwegian immigrant mother and a Swedish immigrant father,” the governor said. “Granholm is Swedish. It means, roughly, ‘peninsula of trees’ — or, an isthmus of land surrounded by water. I used to joke that it was ‘a sign’ that I was supposed to be governor of a state of two peninsulas of trees.   

“Dad’s father was killed when Dad was three,” she continued. “Some say he killed himself to enable his wife, Judith, to receive a widow’s pension, since they were so dirt poor. They lived in a cabin with no running water and Dad worked at a sawmill until he graduated from high school.”

Governor Granholm was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959, the younger of two children. Her mother, Shirley, taught her only daughter that she could be whatever she dreamed. Her brother, Robert Victor Granholm, is two and a-half years older, a Mennonite minister, and an archconservative supporter of President George W. Bush. “My brother and I disagree politically,” the Democrat says. “He’s very, very conservative. Let’s just say he and I are both passionate about our candidates.”

Moving to the U.S.A.
In 1963, when she was four, the Granholms moved south to Anaheim, the largest city in southern California’s Orange County, the same place where Walt Disney built Disneyland. Over the next 13 years, until the family arrived in San Carlos, Calif., near San Francisco, where her father gained the presidency of an Asian bank, the Granholms moved five times. Governor Granholm remembers her life coming of age in the mid-1970s as a series of short stops, switching from one house to another, one place to another, continually finding her way from one group of friends to another.

Until she arrived in Michigan, she’d never really had a place she could call home.

“I moved a lot when I was growing up,” Governor Granholm said. Referring to Michigan, she added: “In terms of feeling rooted, feeling there is a home for me, this is far and away the most rooted I’ve been and the greatest place to call home.”

As a teenager, Governor Granholm wasn’t a top student, though she was bright and not at all reticent. Her classmates at San Carlos High School voted her the “foxiest” student. They also recognized some of the personable instincts that helped make her such an appealing political leader. For one, she had depth. Two, she likes to listen. And most importantly for a new kid on the block, she was reachable. Unlike other new kids, especially teenage girls of eye-opening beauty, Governor Granholm was far from remote. She looked people square in the eye. She shared her own stories, her own fears.  She found it easy to let people in and to open herself to scrutiny. She was modest. 

It was something she’d learned from moving as often as she did and having to continually develop new friends. Her entire life she had possessed a canny instinct to break through unfamiliarity and connect with people she didn’t know. Though she was never averse to the spotlight — after all, she aspired to be an actress — she seemed to have almost no ego involved in her temperament. She participated in student government and won the Miss San Carlos pageant. Her friends and teachers found in her grace something to admire rather than reject, and as a result she never felt or acted like an outcast. Even as a young woman she conveyed the clear impression of a capable soul housed comfortably in its body.

A Natural Leader
She was, in short, a leader. Ms. Granholm’s capacity to influence those around her was formally tapped for the first time in 1977, her senior year of high school. African American students bussed from nearby Palo Alto felt unwelcome in the largely white San Carlos school. Hard feelings erupted in arguments, a couple of fights, and finally a more protracted confrontation. The school’s administrators asked Ms. Granholm and nine other white students to join an equal number of black students at a weekend retreat to learn from each other and begin a period of healing. 

“The administration wanted to get on top of that, so they appointed a group of people to come away from the school to do a retreat on racial reconciliation,” Governor Granholm recalls. “They asked us to help heal the school. It was the first time I’d really been involved in something like that and to see how other people lived. I grew up in suburban areas. It was an awakening for me to see the other side. It was eye opening.”

It was also the start of an inclusive, consensus-based approach to problem solving that Governor Granholm has based her entire legal and political career on perfecting: Bring in people from all sides who care. Sit them around a table with Governor Granholm as the focal point, and talk about problems and what to do about them. Friends and foes have welcomed the approach, which has allowed her to completely avoid being labeled as mean, belligerent or caustic, like her predecessor, former Republican Governor John Engler, so often was.

But the question both her supporters and opponents are starting to ask is whether consensus is a replacement for making decisions that prompt sharp responses. In other words, is Governor Granholm internally capable of making people mad?

“It’s the old adage,” observed David Ladd, a lobbyist in Lansing who served in the late 1990s as Mr. Engler’s environmental advisor. “Trying to be everything to everybody makes you nothing to nobody.”

Acting Out
Such questions, of course, would come much later. Following high school Ms. Granholm headed back to southern California, where she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the same Pasadena acting school that produced Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, and Robert Redford. That training is now evident in the effortless way Governor Granholm strides to the center of any stage, shoulders straight, eyes seeking familiar faces, her breathing measured and deep. It allows her to look as though she’s soaking up bright light even when there is none shining on her.

The training, however, would not overcome the aspiring actress’s inability to land steady work in Hollywood. She says the highlights of her career there include a one-time national television appearance as a contestant on the Dating Game, a single date with John Schneider, the actor who played Bo Duke on the Dukes of Hazard, and an unsatisfying stint as a guide at Universal Studios.

“The most famous actor I ever saw there, like 45,000 times, was Bruce — the mechanical shark from Jaws,” she told the 2003 graduates of Michigan State University.

But she was nothing if not resourceful. “In between tours at Universal I read a lot of philosophy,” she recalls. “Will Durant’s 13-volume Story of Civilization. I read about Kant’s ‘categorical imperative.’ I just got a much broader perspective.”

Her reading helped her define who she was, what she cared about, and what she wanted to do with her time.

Getting Serious
“Los Angeles was a real eye-opening experience for me as a human being,” she says. “It was so clear to me that I had no talent but also that Los Angeles looked at me in one way. This was the era of Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. I just was not interested in that world. It was clear that as a young, blonde woman I was going to be stereotyped. I did my two-and-a-half years there. So it was a good growing experience for me as a young woman. I knew no one was going to take me seriously unless I got a college degree. I knew that when I went to college I was going to get the best grades I could so that I could go to the best law school that I could.”

In 1980, the same year that she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where she later graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Ms. Granholm also became a U.S. citizen. In 1984, she began her legal training at Harvard Law School, where she edited the Harvard Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Law Review, tacked leftward in her politics, and graduated in 1987.

There is no single moment that Governor Granholm can identify that pointed to her political prowess or to her emergence as a progressive leader, other than a long and abiding interest in the process and in fair play. After her freshman year in law school, she spent a summer working on cases for a New York law firm, one of which she found particularly distasteful because it compelled her to defend a company that had manufactured sleepwear that too easily caught fire and had caused disfiguring injuries to a little girl.

Although she describes her family as “fiscally conservative” and, as a high school student in 1976 campaigned door to door for Republican Gerald Ford her views were changing. By 1980 she was already drifting away from her roots and campaigned for independent John Anderson, who she admired as a “maverick.” By 1984 she was firmly in the Democratic tent, campaigning in succession for Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton.

By far, the most important single turning point in Governor Granholm’s life in the 1980s occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1985 at Newark Airport, where she met her husband, Daniel Mulhern, who grew up in Inkster, outside of Detroit.

True Love
“People’s Express —you remember that airline?” she asks. “I was coming back from California. He was coming back from Michigan. It was spring break in my first year in law school. I was sitting on the ground eating potato chips. He was standing over me talking loudly about Harvard Law School. He had seen me at school and he had strategically placed himself there, although if he was here right now he would say something different.

“Anyway, he was trying to get my attention,” the governor said, warming to her story. “So we started talking. But you know, I just wasn’t interested. He sat next to me on the plane. He offered to carry my luggage getting off the plane. I didn’t let him. I can carry my own luggage. He pursued this endeavor for a month or so. But I was, at the time, really not interested. He would put pressed flowers and leaves in my mail box and write me poems. He just wore me down. We began to date the beginning of May and we were engaged a month later at the beginning of June. We got married a year later.”

Mr. Mulhern and his new bride settled in Detroit, where they became known as Dan and Jennifer. When people talked about them, they almost always remarked about how close the couple was, and that it was Dan who would surely be a politician.

Mr. Mulhern, who is now the state’s “first gentleman,” is a leadership-training consultant with lots more to offer his talented wife. He perfected his skills at raising money as the development director at the University of Detroit High School, his alma mater, now known as University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. Mr. Mulhern learned the policy-making and constituency-building ropes while on Democratic Congresman Sander Levin’s staff. Mr. Mulhern also worked for a time for Ed McNamara, the former Wayne County executive who ran one of southeast Michigan’s Democratic machines. Mr. Mulhern is well-known, liked, and respected in the councils of influence all over the Detroit region for his intelligence and political savvy, which their friends say has figured prominently in helping to set Governor Granholm’s goals and the steps to achieve them.

Public Service
Ms. Granholm, meanwhile, decided to pursue a public service legal career. She clerked for Damon Keith, one of the most revered federal judges in the country. She spent time in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit, prosecuting federal environmental crimes. In 1994, Mr. McNamara hired her to lead the Wayne County Corporation Counsel, the second-largest government legal group in the state, behind the attorney general’s office. She and Mr. Mulhern lived for a time in Detroit’s Rosedale Park area, one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods, in a brick and stone home on a leafy street. Later, they moved to Northville, a handsome older suburb with a thriving downtown, where she and her husband raised their daughters, Cecelia and Kate, and a son, Jack.

A few months earlier, in 1996, while she was pregnant with Jack, Ms. Granholm experienced another of those moments that changed her life. She was in Chicago, serving as a Michigan delegate to the Democratic national convention, when two prominent state Democratic leaders asked her to dinner. Ms. Granholm describes the meal as a serendipitous event. Others familiar with the story say the conversation and its goal were planned. In any case, the talk turned to Democratic state Attorney General Frank Kelley, who’d served since 1961. They wondered aloud: When Kelley retired, who would replace him?

Ms. Granholm said she immediately turned to one of her colleagues, a lawyer, and said he should run.  But the two men quickly pointed the conversation right back at her.

“They began this full court press and it just wasn’t something that I thought about at all until he flipped the tables on me,” she recalls. “He made the case. I was running the largest county legal office in the state. I talked about it with Dan. He was instrumental in encouraging me. He thought it was the thing to do.

“Oh my gosh,” she says, “it was a crazy thing to do at that point. I was pregnant with our third child. But it kind of festered. The next year, Jack was about 10 months old when Frank Kelley announced he was retiring. Dan was saying, ‘You got to do this.’ I said, ‘We have a 10-month-old. Are you crazy? There’s no way.’

“But he was intent. ‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘I got the kids. You’ve got to do it. It’s going to be great. You’re always telling the girls that they can be anything they want.’”

Ms. Granholm won a tight race and distinguished herself as a consumer-oriented attorney general. She investigated and prosecuted price gouging in the health care industry, and gas station managers that charged excessive prices for fuel. In 2001, she and her husband and friends held the same sort of conversations before deciding to run for governor the following year. She won that race too.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. Parts of this article first appeared in the February 2005 edition of Traverse Magazine, and the February 16, 2005 edition of Detroit’s Metro Times.

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