Michigan Senate calls for compromise, blocks more Whitmer appointees

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Senate Republicans demanded Wednesday that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer work more closely with lawmakers on responding to COVID-19 before blocking a second slate of her appointees.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted along party lines, 20-14, to reject five of the Democratic governor's appointees, another sign of the deteriorating relationship between the legislative and executive branches during the pandemic. A week earlier, the Senate nixed 13 of Whitmer's appointees.

Before the Wednesday vote, Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said the Senate was using its power to pressure Whitmer to compromise with "the people's representatives." GOP lawmakers want the governor to ease restrictions on businesses and school athletics more quickly.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the State of the State address in Lansing, Mich. on Jan. 27, 2021.

"This governor has done everything possible to avoid working with the elected members of this chamber," Nesbitt said.

Democratic senators slammed the move. Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said the Senate was becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said the chamber was focusing on appointments instead of passing laws or approving a response plan for COVID-19, a virus that's been linked to 14,609 deaths in the state.

"Instead of focusing on those issues, instead of passing bills that would require the governor to react to the power that you have, we’re still mired in the pettiness of rejecting appointments," Irwin said.

Senate Republicans blocked two appointees to the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees, Mikyia Aaron of Taylor and Noreen Myers of East Grand Rapids, and one to the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees, Jason Morgan of Ann Arbor. Morgan is chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

The Senate Republicans also rejected the appointment of Andrea Dickson of Grosse Pointe Farms to the Michigan Technological University Board of Trustees and Gabriella Abel of Okemos to the Michigan Board of Cosmetology.

The Senate is not blocking all of Whitmer's recent appointees. It's unclear how GOP leadership is picking which individuals to reject.

Last week, the rejections included two people with close ties to the governor. Whitmer had chosen Suzanna Shkreli, her deputy legal counsel, to be director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, and Kristin Totten, the spouse of her chief legal counsel, Mark Totten, to serve on the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board.

Since Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 on March 10, GOP lawmakers and the Whitmer administration have clashed over the governor's unilateral power to issue restrictions on businesses and gatherings to stem the spread of the virus.

Currently, the main focuses of Republican ire have been a suspension of winter high schools and requirements that restaurants limit capacity to 25% and cut off indoor dining at 10 p.m. The governor's administration allowed restaurants to begin offering indoor dining, after a 75-day pause, on Monday.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, spoke Wednesday in favor of blocking Whitmer's appointees, saying people in Michigan had been kept from doing their jobs and children had been kept from playing sports.

"It is the very obligation to serve and speak for the people that is the message of this action," McBroom said.

One of Whitmer's most prominent recent appointees — Elizabeth Hertel, whom the governor selected to be the new director of the Department of Health and Human Services — has not yet been rejected. The state health director is in charge of issuing epidemic orders that institute COVID-19 restrictions.

The Senate Advice and Consent Committee has scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing on Hertel. The former health director, Robert Gordon, abruptly resigned without providing a reason publicly on Jan. 22.