Michigan Senate blocks another Whitmer appointee to natural resources panel

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — It had been nearly a decade since the Michigan Senate formally blocked a governor's appointment. Now, senators have done it two times this month.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted 20-17 on Thursday to reject Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's pick of former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell for the Natural Resources Commission, a panel that regulates hunting and fishing.

Heartwell's selection had drawn opposition from gun rights groups that focused on his past effort to ban guns from city buildings and meetings in Grand Rapids. Heartwell said he was concerned the presence of guns could worry other city residents and infringe on their First Amendment rights. 

Former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell appears before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee on Thursday as the Senate considers his appointment to the Natural Resources Commission.

Senate Democrats argued Thursday that Republicans were misusing their power to reject appointments. GOP senators weren't providing concrete reasons for nixing Heartwell and previously blocking Anna Mitterling, a biology professor, Democrats said.

In a speech before the vote, Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said historically, appointment rejections had been based on a candidate's qualifications, "not politics." He cited information from Republican former Sen. Ken Sikkema, who served as the Senate majority leader from 2003 through 2006.

"The rejection last week and this rejection reflect a shift in that process," Hertel said.

The East Lansing Democrat also blasted the influence of the National Rifle Association, which had spoken out against Heartwell.

"It's unfortunate that the long arm of the NRA comes all the way down into this body and gets to choose who is on the Natural Resources Commission," Hertel said. "I think that's inappropriate."

But Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who represents much of the Upper Peninsula, said his constituents don't trust Heartwell to approve policies that are going to reflect the best interest of the state.

"I don't know how much clearer I need to be," McBroom said.

McBroom also criticized Democrats for making allegations about Republicans' intentions and then, demanding they explain themselves. On Feb. 13, Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown alleged senators were playing "sexist, partisan games" in rejecting Mitterling.

"You want to blame the NRA? You want to blame sexism? What do you want to blame now?" McBroom said during a speech on the Senate floor. "You want to bring up Ken Sikkema? Who's he?"

"His opinion on how this process works is not relevant," McBroom continued. "It's not relevant to us right now. If he wanted to make an indelible mark, he should have gotten a bill passed about it."

Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, was the lone Republican to vote with 16 Democrats to try to save Heartwell's appointment.

Afterward, Bumstead said Heartwell is "qualified" and did a "great job" as mayor of Grand Rapids. Senators had faced outside pressure from groups that didn't really know Heartwell, he said.

Asked what candidate Whitmer should appoint to the commission who could get through the Senate, Bumstead responded, "I don't know. She's got a job ahead of her to figure that out."

The Heartwell appointment to the Natural Resources Commission, which has the power to designate game species, had been contentious since Whitmer announced it on Feb. 7.

During a committee hearing last week, Heartwell said he hadn't hunted for decades after making a "personal decision" that "killing things was not for me."

Brown, Whitmer's spokeswoman, previously said Senate Republicans demanded that Whitmer pull back Heartwell's appointment. Whitmer refused.

Amid the disagreement, the Senate voted to block Mitterling. It was the first time the Senate has blocked a gubernatorial appointee in nearly a decade. Democrats said Republicans did it because Whitmer wouldn't rescind Heartwell's appointment.