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Dossier: Jennifer Granholm, US Secretary of Energy

By Julissa James

Jennifer Granholm illustration by DONNA GRETHEN
Jennifer Granholm illustration by DONNA GRETHEN

If you watched Jennifer Granholm’s galvanizing speech about auto industry workers at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, chances are you still remember it. By the end, she was beet-red from screaming with passion over the crowd’s wild applause. Those familiar with Granholm’s role as Michigan’s first female attorney general from 1998 to 2002 and then the state’s first female governor for two terms, from 2003 to 2011, were already aware of her intense charisma — the kind that’s innate in most career politicians and beauty queens (Granholm was Miss San Carlos in 1977) — but she also possesses something that’s increasingly harder to come by in politics these days: energy.

When President Joe Biden nominated the UC Berkeley graduate, and now professor, as his secretary of energy, the internet took notice of this quality and the puns started flying. “The future Secretary of Energy sure does have a lot of energy,” commented one YouTuber. Last month, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved Granholm’s nomination to lead the Energy Department with a 13–4 vote. Here, we look back on her rise.

Northern California roots. Granholm is a first-generation college grad. (And having been born in Canada, she’s also the first in her family to become a U.S. citizen.) After taking a few years upon graduating from San Carlos High to pursue her early passions, she returned to the Bay Area to do her undergrad at Cal in the early ’80s, where she studied French and political science. Later, after earning a law degree at Harvard Law School and achieving a long political career in Michigan, she returned to her alma mater to teach at the Goldman School of Public Policy. She resides in Oakland.

Early dreams. After Granholm graduated from high school, she moved to Los Angeles to become an actress. Her side hustle at the time included giving tours at Universal Studios. Somewhere on the internet, there’s still a clip of Granholm with towering blond hair and suspenders on a 1978 episode of the long-running show The Dating Game. It’s a detour that made her who she is today, she has said. “Sometimes you want to experiment a little bit, and closing doors is a way of making a choice,” she said in an interview with University of California Television (UCTV).

Family life. In Granholm’s Twitter bio, it says “wife to my hero” — a nod to Daniel Mulhern, a lecturer on leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. They met at Harvard Law School, back when it was Mulhern’s dream to be governor of Michigan. “We’re totally different people. He’s very much heart-centered; I’m head-centered. … We’re completely opposite, which is really great because together we make a whole,” she told UCTV. After his wife was nominated as attorney general, then governor, years later, Mulhern assumed the role of fierce supporter. “He has been an incredible partner,” Granholm has said. They’ve been married since 1986 and have three children.

Political career. Granholm’s first taste of politics came when she volunteered for the 1980 presidential campaign of John B. Anderson, an independent. After she graduated from Harvard Law in 1987 and moved to her husband’s home state of Michigan, she clerked for Judge Damon Keith, becoming even more involved with the scene. In 1988, she was active in Michael Dukakis’ campaign for president, where she was connected with Rick Wiener, the then-head of the Democratic Party in Michigan. Wiener encouraged Granholm to run for attorney general, a race she won in 1998. Four years later, she became governor of Michigan.

New gig. In her new role, Granholm, who has long been a proponent of clean energy and lectures about it at the Goldman School of Public Policy, will focus on transitioning the U.S. to sustainable energy (while striving to protect jobs, she says). She has her eye on the market for carbon capture technology, wind energy and electric car batteries. During her Senate hearing, she said: “We can put our workers in good-paying jobs manufacturing and installing those solutions in America.”

Does Granholm run her own Twitter? Granholm’s social media presence is conversational — casual even. All signs point to there being an actual human behind the keyboard instead of a PR machine. Granholm posted endearingly low-angled selfies at Biden’s inauguration. In early January, after Sen. Mitt Romney publicly condemned the mob violence at the nation’s Capitol (one of the few Republican politicians to do so), she tweeted: “Mad respect for @MittRomney right now.” When Miguel Cardona was appointed as Biden’s education secretary, she also gave a Twitter shout-out to every public school teacher she had from kindergarten to sixth grade: Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Angeladakis, Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Opsahl, Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Fonda and Mrs. Nelson.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Jon M. Chu was on the TED stage, reflecting on learning about the power of connection at his parents’ famed Los Altos restaurant Chef Chu’s.

“This place was a hub of connection,” Chu says. “People coming there to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, business deals, eating, drinking…” In the 1990s, it was also where Chu’s father, Lawrence C.C. Chu, would brag about his budding filmmaker son to a loyal customer base that just so happened to be made up of engineers and techies from Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Adobe.

It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s regulars started gifting young Chu beta digital video-editing software, he says, helping seal his fate as the future director of 2018’s groundbreaking romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. He’s since been delving into other high-profile projects, including the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical In the Heights, which will be released this summer; and, Willow, a Disney Plus series based on the cult 1988 feature film, for which Chu will be directing the pilot.

“All the powerful connections in my life were through generosity, and kindness and hope,” says Chu. “So when I think about my movies … all I want to do is show joy and hope in them, because I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us — but in fact around the corner.”

We’re not crying, you’re crying!

Los Altos living: Chu’s parents are Taiwanese immigrants who met in the Bay Area and set down roots in Los Altos — “the Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley,” says Chu. They opened Chef Chu’s in 1970, where Chu and his four older siblings spent a solid chunk of their upbringing in the midst of powerful Silicon Valley figures like Steve Jobs, who famously ate there in the early days of Apple. His parents believed wholeheartedly in the American dream and raised five “all-American kids,” putting the Chu children through ballroom dance and etiquette classes. They even named Chu and his sister, Jennifer, after the characters Jonathan and Jennifer Hart from the classic ’80s mystery series Hart to Hart. “That’s how much they loved America, apparently,” Chu jokes.

Break on through: Growing up, Chu was on video camera duty during family vacations. One year, around 1991, he cobbled together footage for his first cohesive project. When he sat his parents down in the living room for a screener, “something extraordinary happened,” says Chu. “They cried. … not because it was the most amazing home video edit ever — although it was pretty good — but because they saw our family as a normal family that fit in and belonged on the screen in front of them just like the movies that they worshipped and the TV shows that they named us after.”

Resume: Chu attended USC School of Cinematic Arts, earning a collection of awards and making a short film that got him noticed by Steven Spielberg, then thrust into the industry. After directing a number of studio films, including Step Up 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, he eventually found his creative opus in Crazy Rich Asians, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel and the first in a trilogy. The film was the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the last decade and featured the first all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club (hi, Amy Tan!). It was also the first time Chu tapped into his cultural identity professionally.

Dedication to the craft: With his wife, Kristin Chu, Chu has two young children named Willow Amelia Chu and Jonathan Heights Chu. Wait, Willow and Heights? As in, Willow and In the Heights? Let’s speculate: Willow was born in 2017, long before Disney Plus hired her dad to direct the pilot for Willow, but Chu has said to Variety that as an ’80s kid the film had a “profound effect” on him. There’s a clearer line to bed rawn for his young son, who on Instagram captions simply goes by Heights. Heights was born in 2019, during the filming of the movie in New York City’s Washington Heights, an experience Chu describes as “magic.”

Reflections: In a podcast interview with former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Chu reflects on his role as a filmmaker this past year. When the pandemic hit, Chu was in the process of putting the finishing touches on In the Heights, which had to postpone its release date one year to summer 2021. But on a deeper level, it’s been illuminating. Says Chu: “People are consuming more and needing hope and inspiration, the power of storytelling.”

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