Michigan's top health official abruptly resigns without explanation; replaced by deputy
Lansing — Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and a key, but controversial figure in the state's response to COVID-19, announced his resignation Friday from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration.
Gordon gained the public spotlight after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Oct. 2 that Whitmer had violated her constitutional power by continuing to issue executive orders to combat COVID-19 without the approval of state lawmakers. The governor's administration quickly shifted to using epidemic orders issued by Gordon under the Public Health Code to require masks be worn and impose restrictions on public gatherings.
The former state health director became the target of a group of protesters last month who demonstrated outside his home and yelled through a bullhorn.
Gordon's announcement means the abrupt departure of a department leader who's pushed for changes to expand health care access but has clashed with Republican lawmakers — some of whom welcomed Friday's development.
"It's been an honor to serve alongside wonderful colleagues," Gordon tweeted. "I look forward to the next chapter."
Within 20 minutes of Gordon's post, Whitmer's administration announced that Elizabeth Hertel would become the new director of the Department of Health and Human Services. Hertel serves as the senior chief deputy director for administration for the department.
"Elizabeth Hertel has dedicated her career to protecting Michiganders’ public health, and she is uniquely prepared to lead MDHHS as we continue working together to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Whitmer said.
But the governor's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on why Gordon left, and Gordon's social media post provided no other details. The announcement of Hertel's selection featured only one sentence about Gordon, who led the state's health department during a pandemic that's lasted 10 months.
"Robert Gordon has resigned from his position, and the governor has accepted his resignation," the press release from the governor's office said.
Later Friday, Whitmer tweeted, "I am grateful to Director Gordon for his service and excited to move forward with Director Hertel’s expertise and experience at the helm as we continue to work together to end the COVID-19 pandemic."
Hertel's appointment is subject to the advice and consent of the Michigan Senate, and Senate Republicans have voiced frustration with the governor's handling of the coronavirus. They could vote to reject the appointment for the post in charge of issuing epidemics orders that set state restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
But Hertel is the director in the meantime, said Steven Liedel, a Dykema attorney who served as legal counsel to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
"As a practical manner, someone has to be authorized to exercise the powers of the department," Liedel said.
Gordon, who joined the Whitmer administration in January 2019, had signed more than a dozen epidemic orders over the last four months, including one on Friday that allows Michigan restaurants to begin offering indoor dining at 25% capacity on Feb. 1. Gordon didn't appear at the governor's press conference that announced the policy.
The state health department became the center of controversy in April when it reached a nearly $200,000 contract with a Democratic-linked group as the state sought to ramp up its contact tracing efforts at the peak of the pandemic. The contract was canceled amid media scrutiny. Gordon later said the contract was a well-intended mistake made by individuals who didn't understand the political implications of the contract.
Republican lawmakers who clashed with Gordon over his tenure in Lansing celebrated Friday afternoon his abrupt departure.
Michigan has lagged other states in vaccine distribution and hasn't listened to business owners when imposing restrictions on their operations, said state Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, past chairman of the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic.
"I think Robert Gordon was probably given every opportunity to correct these problems," Hall said.
Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Gordon had been the "epitome of an out-of-touch and unresponsive bureaucrat, and I am happy to see him replaced." Shirkey said he has "much respect" for Hertel, who is married to Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing.
"The Department of Health and Human Services has an enormous impact on our state, and Ms. Hertel will be thoroughly vetted via the Senate advice and consent process," Shirkey said. "Through the Senate committee, citizens will have an opportunity to gain a better understanding of her position on the myriad of issues associated with leading a department as complex as DHHS."
Recently, Gordon was a volunteer who helped with President Joe Biden's transition to his new administration.
During the transition, Gordon was designated as one of two "team leads" for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He previously served as acting deputy director at the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President Barack Obama and also worked in policy development at the U.S. Department of Education.
Before joining the Whitmer administration, Gordon served as senior vice president for finance and global strategy at the College Board, a nonprofit based in New York that is focused on expanding access to higher education.