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Huizenga compared Whitmer's executive orders to Japanese internment orders

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of West Michigan compared Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to the presidential orders in the 1940s that sent Japanese people to internment camps.

Huizenga, R-Zeeland, made the comments during a Thursday debate with his Democratic challenger Bryan Berghoef, a debate hosted by the Grand Haven Tribune and held via Zoom roughly a week after the congressman tested positive for COVID-19. 

Huizenga’s comments came after Berghoef, a Holland pastor, called the Republican response to the pandemic a “colossal failure” and criticized the congressman for his critiques of Whitmer’s efforts to “protect lives and livelihoods.”

Democratic nominee for the 2nd U.S. House District Brian Berghoef  of Holland debates U.S. Congressman Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, during a virtual debate hosted by the Grand Haven Tribune on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

“Apparently, protection means violating the Constitution and people’s rights; that’s exactly what this governor did,” the five-term Republican responded.

“It’s a little like when FDR decided to throw all Japanese citizens into internment camps to keep everybody safe. That should have been illegal. It was immoral. And it was not constitutional,” he said. 

“This governor’s response — set aside whether it was the right thing to do — was illegally done. She did not use the Legislature and the legislative powers the way they were supposed to be used.”

Berghoef didn’t respond to Huizenga’s comments immediately during the debate, but released a statement late Thursday night calling the analogy "offensive" and "irresponsible."

"As I said during the debate, conflict in this campaign brings me no pleasure," Berghoef said. "But discussing a person's record of statements and actions, especially when they are in a position of responsibility and power, is not an 'attack': it is accountability."

Whitmer's office called the comments "utterly shameless and beyond the pale."

"We aren't going to respond to this gutter attack," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

The Michigan Supreme Court in early October ruled unanimously that Whitmer violated a 1976 law by extending her state of emergency past April 30 without the Legislature's approval. In a 4-3 decision, the high court also ruled Whitmer's unilateral executive orders were made under a 1945 that was unconstitutional because it gave too much legislative power to the executive branch.

When asked about the comments Thursday, Huizenga's campaign said the congressman's analogy was not meant to compare something like wearing masks to internment camps. 

"The analogy was about executive actions being taken unilaterally in the name of safety that violate the Constitution," said Jim Barry, chairman for Huizenga's re-election campaign. "The Michigan Supreme Court rightfully overturned Gov. Whitmer."

The real question, Barry said, is why Berghoef supports "unlawful and unconstitutional actions by the governor."

Huizenga’s comments came after he said early in the debate that leaders had “to come together, dial back the rhetoric and use some common sense.”

Berghoef also attacked Huizenga for failing to vote on a bipartisan resolution denouncing QAnon. 

Huizenga became emotional during his response and said he missed the Oct. 2 vote to visit a family member in hospice with terminal cancer but filed a statement explaining he would have voted in favor of the resolution. 

“If my opponent wants to criticize me for that — even though he could have easily done the research to find out exactly how I would have voted on that resolution — you’re right to do so, sir, but that is the wrong direction to go,” he said. 

Huizenga last week became the first member of Congress from Michigan to test positive for COVID-19 while participating in a screening ahead of Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Grand Rapids. His positive test triggered the cancellation of the debate only to have it rescheduled for Thursday.

He said Thursday at the start of the debate that he had mild symptoms but was tired.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com