Michigan Senate lets Gov. Whitmer's health director keep job

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate allowed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's appointment of Elizabeth Hertel as the state's health director to stand Tuesday, casting an unusual vote amid an ongoing feud over the administration's COVID-19 response.

Normally, the Senate has only taken votes to disapprove gubernatorial appointments. But on Tuesday — the final day of a 60-day window to consider Hertel's selection — Sen. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, made a motion to specifically approve Hertel.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

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The vote on the motion was 18-16 with four Republicans crossing over to join 14 Democrats in backing Hertel, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland. Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, also supported Hertel.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who presides over the Senate, said although Hertel's appointment didn't get a majority in the 36-member chamber, the vote didn't represent a formal disapproval.

Shirkey, one of Whitmer's most vocal critics during the past year, said his support of Hertel's appointment represented "my belief that her background and expertise make her qualified for the job."

"To her credit, in the short time since her appointment, I have had more conversations with Elizabeth than I did over two years with her predecessor," Shirkey said. "That communication with the Legislature must continue if we are to repair the damage done by the incompetence of the previous leadership."

The Senate majority leader made the comments in a statement after the vote. He declined to answer reporters' questions after the Senate's Tuesday session.

The majority of the Senate GOP caucus, 16 of the 20 members, voted against Hertel. It would have required 19 opposition votes and a formal disapproval vote to block her. In speeches on the Senate floor, Republicans criticized the governor for not including the GOP-controlled Legislature in decisions regarding the state's response to the pandemic.

"This needs to be a conversation with the Legislature," Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said. "We just don’t need a seat at the table. We need to be able to legislate again. The authority to legislate is not vested with the director of health.”

Whitmer picked Hertel to replace Robert Gordon as state health director on Jan. 22. Under the Michigan Constitution and a past attorney general opinion, the Senate had 60 days to disapprove of her appointment through a formal vote.

Multiple Republicans emphasized comments made last month by Hertel during a committee hearing. She told lawmakers that the Whitmer administration's unilateral orders to respond to a pandemic could last for more than a year "if the public health emergency crisis lasts more than year."

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said the state had been under "emergency rule" for 378 days. 

"I don’t know why any of you ran for office. Certainly, I did to have a role in making decisions for this state.” Barrett said.

Before becoming director, Hertel was senior chief deputy director for administration for the department. Years earlier, she worked for Republicans in the state Legislature. She's married to Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing.

Sen. Curtis Hertel didn't vote on the appointment Tuesday but described his wife as the "least partisan person I know."

A segment of Shirkey's 20-member Senate GOP caucus had been pushing — openly and privately — to block Hertel, citing frustration with Whitmer's unilateral decisions to impose limitations on businesses and gatherings without legislative approval.

Under Michigan law, the health director wields unique power to issue epidemic orders to combat a pandemic. The Whitmer administration has used the orders to temporarily suspend indoor dining at restaurants, limit capacity at businesses and require masks be worn in public places.

In recent months, the Whitmer administration has begun easing the restrictions, including allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity on Feb. 1 and further relaxing requirements on March 5.

Six GOP state senators signed onto a March 4 letter against Hertel's appointment: Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte; Ruth Johnson, R-Holly; Jim Runestad, R-White Lake; Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township; Lana Theis, R-Brighton, and Dale Zorn, R-Ida.

The Michigan Senate previously blocked 18 of Whitmer's recent appointments to various boards and positions as Republicans clashed with her over restrictions tied to the virus.