GOP trio flips on highway designations for dead lawmakers
Lansing — A trio of House Republicans say principle, not partisanship, informed their vote against legislation that would designate a portion of a highway in honor of former state Rep. Julie Plawecki, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who died of a heart attack in 2016.
Reps. Michelle Hoitenga, Steve Johnson and John Reilly were among seven Republicans who opposed the measure Wednesday in the Michigan House, arguing highway designations should be reserved for fallen military members, police officers or firefighters.
But unlike the four first-term colleagues, the three other lawmakers voted last session for a nearly identical law honoring former Rep. Pete Pettalia, a Presque Isle Republican who died in a motorcycle crash the same year as Plawecki.
“I know that looks bad,” Hoitenga, R-Manton told The Detroit News after the Thursday vote. “It really had nothing to do with partisan politics whatsoever. And in fact, I went to the Democrats after my vote and I explained that to them.”
Hoitenga said she drew a line in the sand on highway designations earlier this year after supporting a similar bill honoring the late soul singer Aretha Franklin.
“I have strict rule: I only vote in favor of veterans or officers killed in the line of duty,” she said. “I feel very strongly on that.”
Johnson, R-Wayland, said he was convinced to vote for the Pettalia designation last year because it was for the same rural highway the lawmaker was killed on while driving his motorcycle to work at the state Capitol.
“At the time I was uncomfortable with the vote, but that was the argument made to me,” Johnson said. “In hindsight, maybe I did make the wrong decision on that one. I just don’t think roads should be named after politicians.”
The 2018 legislation, which cleared the Republican-led House in a unanimous vote, designated a portion of US-23 in Presque Isle County as the “Peter A. Pettalia Memorial Highway.”
The new proposal approved Thursday in a 102-7 vote would designate a portion of US-24 running between M-153 Warren Avenue in Wayne County as the “Julie Plawecki Memorial Highway.”
Sponsoring Rep. Jewell Jones, D-Inkster, who replaced Plawecki in 2017 after her daughter had been appointed to finish her term, said his predecessor had a “long history of service, not only in the Legislature but in the community” that he thinks justifies a highway designation.
But Jones said he was not overly concerned by the handful of Republicans who voted against the measure because it still passed by a wide margin and is now headed to the Senate for further consideration.
Some lawmakers did come to him and explain their “no” vote, Jones said.
“Sometimes people change over time,” he said of the trio who had supported the Pettalia honor. “But it’s always important to be cognizant of previous votes because if somebody wants to go digging in your history they can see you changing up and acting different, there could be a conflict there.”
Democratic Rep. Robert Wittenberg of Huntington Woods was visibly upset by the Republican "no" votes but declined to comment on his colleagues later Thursday.
Like Hoitenga, Johnson and Reilly denied any partisan motivation.
“Obviously, I respect the service of Rep. Plawecki, and whether she was a Republican or Democrat should have no bearing,” Johnson said. “To me I just think these (designations) should be limited to those who died in the line of duty.”
Floor statements by former colleagues made clear Plawecki was a “dedicated public servant,” said Reilly, R-Oakland Township.
But there’s only so many highways the state can designate, he told The News, saying he sees a distinction between politicians and public servants and military personnel.
Reilly was a freshman lawmaker when he voted for the Pettalia bill but said he has since had more time to think about the larger issue of highway designations.
“I don’t know if I would have voted the same way today, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s hard to go against the grain on some of these things. It’s not easy, especially when you’re a new legislator and see everybody voting the same way on something.”
Arguments over highway honorifics surfaced earlier this year when the House approved a law designating a portion of M-10 in Detroit as the “Aretha L. Franklin Memorial Highway.”
Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, was one of six Republicans who voted against the Franklin measure on the grounds such designations should be reserved for first responders and military veterans who died in the line of duty.
Hernandez voted for the Plawecki designation Thursday and did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment or a message left with his office.