MichMash: These Whitmer Cabinet Picks Will Inherit Huge Problems At Pivotal Moments

WDET Digital

We’re beginning to get a clearer picture of what state government might look like under Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

She named a number of top cabinet positions this week. They include hires for the state’s top environmental, infrastructure, licensing, and law enforcement officials. All of these department heads will take over large bureaucracies that deal with important problems. But a handful of them are especially noteworthy, considering this specific moment in Michigan.

You can find out more about those picks here, here, and here.

As part of the weekly series MichMash, Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth talk about how these picks might affect some of the biggest issues facing Michigan.

Click on the audio player above to hear that conversation.

Water contamination and other environmental challenges


Liesl Eichler Clark

In the last eight years we’ve seen the Flint Water Crisis, PFAS and other chemical contamination issues in drinking water, and rancorous debate over oil and gas drilling and pipelines. 

Those issues are largely the purview of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). 

Whitmer has named Liesl Eichler Clark to head up that department, and in turn become the point person in her administration on those problems which have plagued MDEQ during Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure.

Clark is co-founder and partner of 5 Lakes Energy, “a policy consulting firm that serves businesses, policymakers and other stakeholders seeking to advance the transition to a clean energy economy,” according to a press release from Whitmer’s transition team.

Liesl will be instrumental in finding real and lasting solutions to protecting our water resources here in the state,” Whitmer said in that statement. “She brings an acute understanding of the critical intersection between environmental safety and business innovation, which will be essential in moving Michigan’s environmental stewardship forward.”

This choice marks somewhat of a shift in approach compared to Gov. Snyder’s more business-focused MDEQ. But it also reveals that “business innovation” is still something Whitmer and her team view as an important aspect of that department.

Fixing those damn roads


Paul Ajegba

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) doesn’t just put up orange cones to annoy you on your way to work.

It also has served an important role in lobbying for more money to improve Michigan’s roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. 

It also so happens that Whitmer’s “fix the damn roads!” catch phrase is one of the things that helped catapult her to the governor’s office in the first place.

Improving infrastructure will likely be the issue that defines her first year(s) in office, and one of the issues she’ll be judged on if and when she runs for reelection in 2022. 

She’s entrusting that key role of director and legislative go-between to Paul Ajegba, a 28 year veteran of MDOT.

Michigan residents have made loud and clear their concern over the state’s crumbling infrastructure, and no one understands those issues better than Paul,” said Governor-elect Whitmer. “His technical expertise and years of experience mean that we can get to work fixing the roads, and fixing them right.”

A new era of cannabis in Michigan — will it be reefer madness or chill vibes?

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) is one of those state offices that often flies under the radar. But its tasks are huge, especially right now.

In case you haven’t heard, recreational pot is legal now in Michigan. On top of that, our medical marijuana system is also undergoing major changes.


Orlene Hawks

LARA will handle both of those new licensing and regulatory systems. It will play maybe the biggest role in ushering in a new era of cannabis in Michigan.

Whitmer has given the nod to Orlene Hawks to take on those tasks.

Hawks’ background focuses on child welfare — another critical issue in Michigan right now, to be sure. 

She currently serves as director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, “where she has worked for the last five years to ensure greater accountability and transparency in Michigan’s child welfare system,” according to the Whitmer transition team’s release.

But what her appointment signals in terms of Whitmer’s priorities in implementing two new regulatory structures for marijuana is yet to be seen.

One Snyder department head will keep her job


Heidi Washington

Heidi Washington took over the Michigan Department of Corrections in 2015 during a tumultuous time for the department. MDOC and Gov. Snyder himself were blasted for use of privatized prison food contracts that resulted in maggots in food, sexual relationships between contracts workers and inmates, and even a murder-for-hire plot.

Washington was one department insider who was critical of those contracts before she ascended to the top position in MDOC. Since then, her focuses on prisoner rehabilitation and reducing the prison population have caught the attention of many in Lansing, including Whitmer.

Under Washington’s leadership, MDOC has seen a significant decrease in its prison population and has implemented a skilled trades training program to help prisoners complete career and technical education and be better prepared to find jobs upon release,” Whitmer’s transition team press release reads.

The pink wave is spilling over into Whitmer’s cabinet

These picks also signal Whitmer’s approach to governing in other ways.

Of the 14 cabinet and other top agency officials Whitmer has selected, nine are women. A number of her picks are people of color.

Gov. Snyder has increased the number of women and people of color in his cabinet and in other top positions over the years. Whitmer is starting off with even more gender and racial diversity.

There’s still a lot to learn about these men and women who will soon play significant roles in Michigan’s trajectory moving forward. But we are beginning to get a sense of Gov.-elect Whitmer’s #SquadGoals

Image credit: michigantransition.org

Filed Under: #MichMash

This post is a part of MichMash.

Each week, WDET's Jake Neher and Michigan Public Radio's Cheyna Roth un-jumble Michigan issues and talk about how statewide news stories affect you. 

About the Author

Jake Neher

Detroit Today - Producer & Special Projects Reporter

Jake Neher is a producer & reporter for Detroit Today

Jake.Neher@wdet.org   Follow @GJNeher

Cheyna Roth


Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She’s also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.

CRoth@MPRN.org   Follow @Cheyna_R

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