Michigan Senate Republicans block 13 Whitmer appointees amid COVID fight

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate rejected 13 appointees from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday, a new pinnacle in the rift between the GOP-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor.

Republicans have attempted to use their power to push for the lifting of more COVID-19 restrictions and the Senate voted 19-14 along party lines to block the appointees, among whom were multiple people with close ties to Whitmer.

Senate Republicans rejected Suzanna Shkreli, the governor's deputy legal counsel chosen to be director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, and Kristin Totten, the wife of the governor's chief legal counsel, Mark Totten, whom Whitmer had selected to serve on the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board.

The vote occurred hours before Whitmer's third State of the State speech in which she's expected to call for unity.

However, Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, slammed restrictions the governor's administration has imposed to combat the coronavirus. He said the rules have cost people their livelihoods and increased unemployment. The state's unemployment rate rose in December to 7.5% from 6.7% the month before.

"We will continue to use the tools that we have ... to demonstrate to the governor that we are partners in this," Horn said. "We are a co-equal branch.

"Until that’s recognized, we will use the tools that we have without explanation."

Whitmer, who has received praise from public health experts for her handling of the pandemic, has said she's following the data and science when forming policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The administration is focused on passing a COVID-19 recovery plan that supports vaccines for seniors and educators to get "our kids back in school safely, along with support for our small businesses and unemployed workers," said Tiffany Brown, the governor's spokeswoman.

"We’re not going to be distracted by petty partisan games," Brown said of the Senate vote.

Last week, Whitmer's administration announced that restaurants may allow indoor dining again on Feb. 1. Indoor dining has been suspended since Nov. 18.

Republicans have repeatedly called for bars and restaurants to be able to open more quickly. They've also criticized the governor for suspending high school winter sports through Feb. 21. On Monday, Whitmer cited a growing number of COVID-19 variant cases in Michigan.

"Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan," Whitmer said Monday. "We've got to not let our guard down. We've re-engaged restaurants to a certain extent. That will increase the amount of people who are out and about. And I think it's important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps."

Democratic lawmakers slammed Republicans for blocking the appointments.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said Shkreli, a former assistant prosecutor with the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office in the child protection unit, was obviously qualified and had fought to protect children her entire life.

Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo, said he couldn't imagine someone more qualified than Kristin Totten, an education attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, to serve on the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board.

“I can only conclude that this is a ridiculous, vicious and mean political game,” McCann said.

In addition to the Shkreli and Totten, the Republicans blocked Cheryl Kobernik of Frankfort to Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development; Emily McDonough of Williamston to the Data Collection Agency Governing Board; Terry Gilligan of Livonia and Dennis Mowbray Jr. of New Boston to the Board of Mechanical Rules; James Pearson of Highland to the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System Board; Thomas A. Baird of Elk Rapids and David Cozad of Bay City to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission; Erin Kricher of Traverse City to the Rural Development Fund Board; Amy Cox of Warren to the Michigan Travel Commission; Richard Corriveau of Northville to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and Ronald Campbell of Davison to the Barrier Free Design Board.

cmauger@detroitnews.com