Democratic women governors forge friendships in group chat

This article was originially published by The 19th.
Posted May 18, 2024, 6:32 am
Jennifer Gerson
The 19th

In Meghan Meehan-Draper’s first years with the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), she noticed something startling: “We had more governors named John than we had governors who were women,” Meehan-Draper, now the executive director of the DGA, told The 19th. 

A few years later, DGA launched the Women Governors Fund, which has put $80 million in Democratic women candidates in general elections. Since its start in 2018, the number of Democratic women governors has quadrupled. 

The eight Democratic women leading their states — Maura Healey in Massachusetts, Katie Hobbs in Arizona, Kathy Hochul in New York, Laura Kelly in Kansas, Tina Kotek in Oregon, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Janet Mills in Maine and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan — have changed what it means for women to win and hold executive office in the United States. 

They’re a group marked by notable firsts, too. Three — Healey, Hochul, and Mills — are the first women to hold that office in their states. Lujan Grisham is the nation’s first Democratic Hispanic woman governor. Healey and Kotek are the first elected out lesbian governors in their states. 

But what’s perhaps even more remarkable is the way the women in this group have made their relationships with one another a critical part of their own leadership. These eight women are actual friends. They call and text each other to check in and get advice. They get together for dinner — and bring their daughters. They turn to each other when they are going through something challenging and when they need to laugh. 

The 19th interviewed Governors Healey, Hobbs, Hochul, Kelly, Lujan Grisham, Mills and Whitmer about their relationships with their peers, how they think about leadership, the issues that matter most to them, and how their families have shaped their work.

Most interviews were via phone; Mills’ responses are via email. Kotek declined to be interviewed. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico: Our relationships really solidified during COVID. I was on a phone call which is now widely publicized and I believe the term that [former president Donald] Trump used was that we were “losers.” He was sort of barking at some of the women, including me, on that call. 

This is when we learned that we were all competing for the same personal protective equipment. That really spurred us — especially my friend “the woman in Michigan” — to say, “You know what? We’re not going to let any elected leader create division among a group, particularly a group of women.”  

Gov. Laura Kelly, Kansas: Having that relationship with the woman governors who were also on that call and being able to immediately text one of them to fact check to make sure I heard what I just heard — in addition to it being useful to have each other, it really drew us together. We were like any people who go through a crisis or emergency together.

Gov. Janet Mills, Maine: The earliest days of the pandemic were a difficult and emotional time, forcing us to make life and death choices, and as women leaders, we weren’t really allowed to show it. Being able to lean on each other as we navigated the pandemic, and the added challenges created by the former president, was really important. 

It was moments like those that just reminded me that I have spent the better part of my career listening to loud men talk tough to disguise their weakness — and I’m sure it’s something my women colleagues have endured as well. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan: We had frequent joint calls together — it was a gut check. It was saying, “How are you dealing with this?” and “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?” Those conversations were really important to cut through what was important and what wasn’t and how to solve the problems that we were all grappling with. I count [the other Democratic women governors] as some of my closest friends and allies to this day.

Meehan-Draper said the camaraderie and connection the governors have is on display not only when they gather for DGA meetings, but in their work. 

Gov. Katie Hobbs, Arizona: Governor Kotek, Governor Healey and myself are the newbies, but the other five started this relationship during the pandemic where they were really like, “How do we lead through this?” 

When I was secretary of state and running for governor [in 2022] — you could just feel the relationship that the other women governors had together. It was really evident. And quite honestly, I really wanted to be a part of that. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York: We have really embraced our newer members — Tina Kotek in Oregon and Maura Healey in Massachusetts and Katie Hobbs in Arizona — and we really have a lot of fun together, to be honest. I think it’s because you really do have to have a sense of humor to get what we do. 

Each individual is a personality and they always come with so many stories about their own states and I love listening to how everybody is always bragging about their state all of the time. 

Hobbs: Governor Whitmer had a similar abortion law [a pre-Roe v. Wade ban like Arizona’s] in her state repealed, and it’s great to talk to her about how they did that and because she just got the legislature in ’23 and with the possibility of our getting the legislature in ’24, that’s really helpful, talking to these women about how a different environment with a divided government can create different challenges.

Gov. Maura Healey, Massachusetts: For me as a new governor, the guidance and the friendship and the advice of my colleagues who have served as women has been just so invaluable. 

It’s just great to be able to have a friend network too where you can just pick up the phone and call and talk about your day and say, “What’s going on with your family?” and then “How are you navigating this challenge?”

Lujan Grisham: I have been a governor for longer than Governor Healey, but you better believe I’m calling Governor Healey and saying, “Look, you’re making some real progress on work issues, particularly related to asylum-seekers and migrants. Given that I’m a border state, I’m very interested in your successes here. Here’s where I wasn’t as successful — I wonder if you could help me figure out why.” 

It’s not about who’s got seniority — it’s about the fact that I have a relationship with Governor Healey. I trust her. I like her. I know that she’s going to do everything in her power to help me be successful. It’s not a competition. That’s what’s different here. We don’t compete in the ways that I think a lot of our male counterparts do. 

Healey: When I think about Governor Lujan Grisham, who is an incredible governor and an incredible leader, I think of someone I call when I’m looking for advice on a number of things, especially with early education and child care. I call her and say,”‘I want to understand what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, because I want to do more of that in Massachusetts.” When we introduced universal school meals? That was something she already took on in her state. So I sought her advice on how you get that done. 

But also, Michelle [Lujan Grisham] has just got the best sense of humor. We’re a tight group and we laugh together and we joke together and we commiserate together and we talk about really serious things together. But she always makes me laugh. 

Given that a third of states have never had a woman governor, getting people to see them as something other than compromisers and negotiators can feel like an uphill battle. “People really struggle seeing women as executives, as bosses,” Meehan-Draper said. 

Lujan Grisham: You have to recognize that part of our work does mean challenging the status quo opinions about what you can and cannot do.

Women have to be bolder. We’re unabashed and unafraid — and we believe that’s why we got elected in the first place, to be smart and bold, to be practical and strategic, and to be unapologetic about the things that require results and a change. 

Whitmer: During COVID, I was on a call with my Midwestern governors group and it was in the height of all the threats I was getting — and to be fair, every governor who was trying to keep people safe was taking a lot of heat and getting a lot of abuse, though mine was at a whole different level unfortunately. 

One of my colleagues said, “Why do you take so much more heat for this than the rest of us do?” and then he said, “No, don’t answer that. I already know.”’ Then he answered it himself. “‘It’s because you’re the woman.”

Healey: The thing I really work toward is to not be afraid. No matter what you do, not everyone is going to be happy. I’ve learned to trust my gut and trust my instinct. You have to do what you think is right and then let the chips fall where they may.

Kelly: What motivates me is that I’m just by nature a problem solver. Our state was in such bad shape that I knew if I didn’t run, it would get even worse. It was my good, old Irish Catholic guilt that I thought it was my responsibility to do this because I had the skill set and the deep knowledge of how the state operated, how it needed to operate, and that I could actually do the job.

Hochul: What I did was I decided to carve a path that was far more collaborative. I knew I would be different and people are still getting used to it. It really does not have to be a fight. 

Kelly: When I was running, I think people were skeptical that I was up for the job. I tend to be somewhat soft-spoken. I was not a yeller and a screamer, just a very, very moderate person. I think a lot of folks were worried that I would not be able to deal with recalcitrant legislators and manage a very large operation. 

I think the fact that not only have I proven I can do it, but now so many other women governors have proven that also, I think we’re going to see less skepticism as we move forward.

Whitmer: I think that all women who get the chance to serve, but especially this group of Democratic women governors, get the opportunity to show up as we are.

Michelle Lujan Grisham is so different than Laura Kelly. I love them both to death and we’ve got so many similar values, but they’ve got very different styles, they’re in different parts of the country. But at the end of the day, I think each of them has stepped into their leadership role and has been bold — and that gives space for the rest of us to be as well. 

I’m able to show up as I am in a way that I think previous generations of female leaders didn’t feel as comfortable. I think that’s when people see why having different voices in leadership positions is actually a great thing. 

Healey: I think that relatability is something that people really crave right now, particularly in a time when there’s been a lot of cynicism about politicians, about government, about trusting government. These women every single day are building people’s trust in government, which is absolutely imperative to holding on to and affirming our democracy. Because if people don’t believe and trust in government, then there’s not going to be a government. 

Part of being a successful governor is having a deep understanding of your state — and the issues that are most pressing within it. For the Democratic women governors, a large part of their work has involved transforming voters’ perceptions about the kinds of issues that women executives care about and are capable of leading on, while also proving their deep local expertise. 

“Democratic women executives have to prove that they deserve to be here as much as the 100 men that came before them, and I’m even better because I accomplished all these groundbreaking, trailblazing things that leave my state a better place than I found it,” Meehan-Draper said.

Whitmer: A question that I got early in my first run for governor was, “Are you going to run as a woman?” 

I’ve always tried to figure out what’s the question behind the question. I think they were asking me if I was only going to champion “traditional women’s issues” like pay equity or child care or whatever it is that people generally think of as women’s issues. 

Healey: I think it’s ridiculous to say that certain things are “women’s issues.” I want to change the conversation about what women’s issues are. When you look at household budgets, it’s women who more often than not are actually managing that. If you want to think about who’s going to be the steward of economic growth and development in your state, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be leading the discussions on that.

Kelly: We have smashed all records for new capital investment in our state. I think that has shocked people, but in a good way. I think that’s why the perception of my ability to be the CEO has radically changed, because I’ve done things people didn’t expect from a woman or from a Democrat.

Lujan Grisham: I had a woman who sat next to me before I was going to give an economic speech who has great expertise in economic efforts, and she said to me, “Can you believe it, how the economy is here now? Would you have ever thought this possible in your wildest dreams?” And I said, “Yes, of course. This is my strategy and it’s working. I ran on this strategy. I don’t know why you’re surprised, since I said if we did these things this would happen.” 

Hochul: We protect our children. We protect our families. So public safety is a very natural place for me to go into and say, “No we need to have tougher laws. We need to protect people. We need to make sure that students are not discriminated against. We need to make sure that women are safe in their homes.”

No one should be surprised by the emotion and the intention that we bring to this. 

Healey: I want to shout out what my colleagues are doing. Look at what Katie Hobbs is doing to promote the semiconductor industry in Arizona and to protect abortion access right now. Look at Laura Kelly, who amazingly reversed years of damage by balancing the budget and fully funding public education in Kansas. Look at Janet Mills, who expanded Medicaid on her very first day in office in Maine and changed the lives of thousands of Mainers. Look at Gretchen Whitmer, who is making Michigan a leader in electric vehicle jobs while fixing the damn roads. Think about Kathy Hochul, who is tackling the state’s mental health challenges and taking action to improve public safety in New York. And then of course there is Michelle [Lujan Grisham], who expanded affordable child care. I look at them and I’m inspired by their work. 

Hobbs: Every issue that our legislature deals with is a women’s issue. We’re really focused on economic development and all of the pieces critical to keeping that going. We created 82,000 jobs in my first year and we have more Arizonans now working than ever before and they’re making more money than they’ve ever made. That is a women’s issue because whether or not you’re a single head of household, that income is helping your family to thrive.

Whitmer: I have a tendency to couch every issue in a way that makes it as personal for people as I can, and I relate abortion back to the economy and autonomy. Their ability to get health care is about their personal autonomy; whether or not your child is getting an education that prepares them is, too.  

I think that’s been one way that I really try to de-gender issues that really shouldn’t be about women or men at all — these are all things that are about the American economy and the average American’s ability to get ahead. 

Lujan Grisham: We are the fighters for freedom. We are the ones saying, “Actually the founding fathers didn’t want the government intruding in your life, making your reproductive choices for you, rolling back your constitutional rights.” It’s women who are going to stand up. I don’t think anyone thought about women standing up for the Constitution — and now we are, for our constitutional rights and our freedom. I think people are going to look to women in a whole different leadership sense in this political climate — and I think that is good for America. 

These women also are thinking about the way their families have informed their ability to lead.

Whitmer: I was raised by two public servants. My dad was a traditional Republican — he’s a Democrat now — and my mom was a Democrat. In my family it was really instilled in all of us, my brother and my sister and I, that public service is important. It’s rewarding. It’s something that each of us should figure out — what way can we be of service to others?

As I raise my two daughters, Sherry and Sydney, I am always trying to make sure that they understand why all the heat and stuff that comes my way is worth it. 

When I look at my own kids, I think about how when the government doesn’t work, it’s the people on the margins that pay the dearest price for it. When the water that comes out of your tap isn’t safe or when the roads you’re driving on are falling apart or the education that your kids are getting isn’t enough — the people on the margins suffer the most, and I just look at my kids — I think about everyone’s kids. 

Mills: My grandmothers both voted for the first time in the presidential election of 1920 and, within a few short years, each was elected to the school boards of their respective towns, Farmington and Ashland, Maine. 

I like to think that they would be proud that, within a hundred years of being able to vote for the first time, their granddaughter would not only be the first woman governor of Maine, she would also be on a group chat with seven other women governors!

Kelly: There’s no doubt that women with children have to be great multitaskers, particularly if they are working outside the home. They have to be very nimble, being able to move from one thing to another, to respond to that call from school to pick up a sick kid, and then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to cover your work day. There are infinite opportunities for women with children to develop management skills — crisis management, negotiations, problem solving, conflict resolution. There are all sorts of things I can think of that I had to implement when my two daughters were growing up. 

Healey: I’m the oldest of five raised by a single mom. I saw how hard my mom worked and what she was able to persevere through and I think I grew a lot in watching her and learning from her. 

Lujan Grisham: I’m a proud mother of two daughters, aged 38 and 40. They’re motivated. They want a different future for their children. Democracies are fragile and they’re complicated.

Hochul: Back in 2011, I was a county clerk. I had just won my reelection with 80 percent of the vote. And there was a position for county executive that I was asked to challenge on, to challenge the incumbent Republican county executive. But then all of a sudden we had an unexpected vacancy when our local Republican congressman resigned unexpectedly. My local elected leaders and the county chairman were still really pushing me hard to go for the county executive seat. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about the congressional seat though, and I told my daughter — who was just in college at the time — about it. I just laid it all out there. I said, “There’s no way I am going to win that congressional seat, but what would you do, sweetheart?” 

And she said, “Mom! Congress, duh! You have to do Congress!” 

I got out there and went to every fire hall, every veterans’ post, every diner in the county. I worked hard in that rural, Republican district to win them over. And ultimately, I won. 

Two weeks before I was sworn in, I was at my daughter’s college graduation and John Lewis was their commencement speaker and literally, the kids went crazy seeing him. He was a rock star with all of those kids. And then literally two weeks later, I’m shaking his hand as a colleague on the floor of Congress. So that’s the turn my life took because I needed to prove to my daughter that her mother had the guts to do

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