Michigan Senate casts rare vote to block Whitmer natural resources appointee

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing —  The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate cast a rare vote on Thursday to officially nix one of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's appointees with frustration from gun rights advocates lingering in the background.

The Senate voted 20-16 to block the appointment of Anna Mitterling to the Natural Resources Commission, a panel regulates hunting and fishing in the state. It was the first time since Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration, which ended in 2010, that the Senate has exercised its authority to formally reject an appointment, said Amber McCann, Senate Republican spokeswoman.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, behind her, acknowledges some guests during the State of the State address at the Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 29, 2020.  She is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, right.

Whitmer's office called the vote part of Republican legislators' "sexist, partisan games." It came less than a week after Whitmer, a Democrat, announced the Friday appointment of former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell to fill another seat on the Natural Resources Commission.

Heartwell's appointment spurred a backlash from gun rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association, who criticized Heartwell's past stances and membership in the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which advocates for "gun safety" legislation.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, alleged in a speech on the Senate floor that Republicans had reached out to the Governor's Office and said if Whitmer was willing to pull Heartwell's appointment, they wouldn't block Mitterling.

"The reality is that those in the majority are mad about a man and so they're going to take it out on a qualified woman," Hertel said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, didn't deny Thursday that such a compromise was offered.

"It's not unusual for these types of conversations to take place," Shirkey told reporters after the vote. He added, "Our governor decided not to compromise."

Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake,  is sworn in by Chief Justice Stephen Markman.

Whitmer announced Mitterling's appointment on Dec. 18. That gave the Senate 60 days to block the appointment. The time period would end Sunday.

Mitterling, of Mason, is a biology professor at Lansing Community College and a former wildlife coordinator with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, according to information provided by Whitmer's office.

There was "zero question" whether Mitterling was qualified, Hertel said.

"Colleagues, quite frankly, most of you would be lucky to have a resume like this," he said. "Thank God for each of you that no one had to review your resume in this same way for you to serve in this body."

The vote wasn't about Mitterling's resume but about concerns that were raised in a Senate committee hearing on her nomination, Shirkey said. The Senate Advice and Consent Committee questioned Mitterling for over an hour on Jan. 30.

"She just came across as being a little bit not willing to make tough decisions," the Senate leader said.

During the Jan. 30 meeting, Mitterling told committee members she would listen to as many perspectives as possible and examine the biological and social science when making decisions.

The 20-16 vote was close to a party line vote with Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, and Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, not present to vote. The lone senator who crossed party lines was Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, who voted for the appointment.

"She was qualified," Bumstead said as he left the Capitol Thursday. "I thought she was very well qualified for the position."

Environmental issues have proven to be a flash point between the Whitmer administration and Republican-controlled Legislature. In February 2019, the Senate voted to overturn Whitmer's executive order overhauling the state environmental department, finalizing the first rejection of its kind since 1977. 

Shirkey said at the time Whitmer’s order went “a step too far” by eliminating business-friendly panels the Legislature created last year to oversee environmental rules and permit applications.

Whitmer had rejected Senate Republicans' demand to pull Heartwell's appointment to "save" Mitterling, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a Thursday statement.

"Sen. Shirkey had promised to turn over a new leaf, but it’s now clear that they care more about their sexist, partisan games than the well-being of our state," Brown added. "All of those who care about qualified women being appointed in state government should do the right thing and reject these partisan games."

Shirkey said it was "shameful" to evoke sex on the issue.

"That just diminishes the candidate themselves," Shirkey said.

As for Heartwell, he could go before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee as early as next week, the former Grand Rapids mayor said. Heartwell called Mitterling "immensely qualified." 

"I have a high regard for the political process," Heartwell added in a Thursday interview. "But what happened today in Lansing was a travesty."

Heartwell said he began hunting with his father when he was 8 years old and has high regard for hunters.

He said gun rights advocates didn't like the fact that he supported banning the open carry of weapons at city meetings in Grand Rapids. Heartwell said he was concerned that other residents could be uncomfortable with the presence of weapons, and he saw the matter as a First Amendment issue.