Whitmer picks former Obama official to lead Michigan health department

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Deaprtment of Health and Human Services. He was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has gone out of state to fill a key position in her administration, naming former Obama appointee Robert Gordon to lead the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Gordon, who will move to Michigan from Washington, D.C., previously held senior roles in the federal Office of Management and Budget and U.S. Department of Education under former President Barack Obama.

He most recently served as senior vice president for finance and global strategy at The College Board, a non-profit based in New York that is focused on expanding access to higher education.

“I have full confidence that Robert will work every day to improve public health and deliver essential human services for Michiganders across the state,” Whitmer said in a statement.

“He brings a unique set of skills and experiences that will lead the Department of Health and Human Services to drive real results that help hardworking families, and I look forward to working with him and the rest of our department leaders as we build a stronger Michigan for everyone.”

Gordon will take over the largest department in state government, which former Gov. Rick Snyder created by merger in 2015. As of last year, the welfare and health department had roughly 15,000 employees working at offices across the state, according to a tally by the Civil Service Commission

The department remains under scrutiny for its response to the Flint water contamination crisis. Former director Nick Lyon, a Snyder appointee who stepped down in the New Year, is scheduled to stand trial on involuntary manslaughter and other charges related to a 2014-2015 outbreak of the deadly Legionnaire’s disease in the Flint region.

The department manages assistance programs for lower-income residents, including welfare and Medicaid health plans. It also oversees adoptions and foster care programs, investigates child abuse and neglect complaints, runs health awareness initiatives and more.

Gordon’s resume does not include direct experience in public health, but he once worked as a law guardian for foster care children. Whitmer’s office said he has been described as a “quarterback” for the Obama administration’s “evidence-based policy-making initiatives, which closely tied program funding to quality evaluation.”

Gordon is known as an education and labor expert who also worked as a policy adviser to former Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards during their respective Democratic presidential runs in 2003 and 2004, according to the Washington Post. He also previously worked as a guest  scholar for the Brookings Institution and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg early in his career.

Gordon called it an "honor" to be named to the state director post.

“I look forward to working with Gov. Whitmer and this administration as we improve public health and quality of life for Michiganders across the state,” he said in a statement. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work building a Michigan where everyone has access to the care they need and can make healthy decisions for themselves and their families. Let’s go.”

The state will pay Gordon $175,000 a year in his new role according to Whitmer's office. Lyon had earned the same salary.

Whitmer had named most of her cabinet picks before taking office on Jan. 1 but had only announced an interim director for the Department of Health and Human Services. Gordon takes over for acting director Farah Hanley, who remains deputy director for financial operations for the department.

Whitmer had considered breaking up the community health and human services department but ultimately decided to retain the merged structure that Snyder touted as a way to streamline state services and coordinate various programs for vulnerable residents.

Employees in the Department of Health and Human Services make up nearly 30 percent of the total state government workforce. Whitmer, Gordon and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist visited some of those employees Thursday in Lansing. 

Whitmer campaigned on vows to protect and potentially grow the state’s Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program, raise the state’s tobacco purchase age to 21, make health care more affordable, enact paid family leave policies and improve mental health services.

She also pledged to create a new cabinet-level position to focus on mental health services and a new Director of Food Security coordinator to focus on access to fresh foods. She has not yet announced plans for those potential posts.

Many of Whitmer’s appointments will be subject to potential review by Michigan’s Republican-led Senate, which has up to 60 days to consider and potentially reject gubernatorial picks. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, recently created a new “advice and consent” committee to review Whitmer appointments.  

Sen. Pete Lucido, a Shelby Township Republican who will chair the new committee, said this week he has not yet decided whether to hold hearings on any specific Whitmer appointees.

“We need to see that the best fit for these positions are being made,” he told The Detroit News. “More importantly, I want to get our money’s worth here as a taxpayer. So we hire based on skill, knowledge and the fact they have experience. Without experience, we’re wasting our time and our money.”