Whitmer, GOP legislative leaders meet in person for first time in 8 months

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer met with Republican legislative leaders this week in person for the first time in about eight months, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Friday. 

Shirkey, R-Clarklake, described the meeting as a "good start" to restore constructive communication between the Democratic governor and the GOP-led Legislature. 

"We’ve been having meetings remotely," Shirkey told The Detroit News editorial board. "But this is the first time since August of last year that we’ve actually met in person."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, applauds Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, during her January 2020 State of the State speech. Shirkey, House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Whitmer held their first face-to-face meeting this week.

Shirkey declined to disclose much about the meeting but noted it was "part of a negotiation that we've agreed to start" and said the meeting focused generally on how the state gets to a point where it is lifting remaining pandemic restrictions. 

The trio also spoke of "the Legislature's involvement in these types of situation" in the future, he said. 

House Speaker Jason Wentworth's office would only confirm that the meeting occurred. 

Whitmer's office said the governor hosted the meeting and that she is committed to "working with anyone who wants to work with her to get things done for Michiganders."

"We will continue to keep the lines of communication open, including holding frequent quadrant meetings, as we work to end the COVID-19 pandemic, grow our economy and get back to normal as quickly as possible," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said. 

The relationship between Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature was on ice prior to the pandemic thanks to budget debates, vetoes and transportation funding differences, but the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 sent the relationship into a tailspin. 

The Legislature and Whitmer have had opposing views about how the pandemic should be addressed, with GOP leaders intolerant of restrictions and Whitmer inclined to issue some of the strictest pandemic orders in the nation. GOP leaders challenged her emergency powers all the way up to the Michigan Supreme Court, which in October ruled that the 1945 law she used for orders was unconstitutional. 

Shortly afterward, Whitmer switched to the state's public health code and had her state health director issue epidemic orders that carried largely the same authority as the executive orders.

Disagreements continued over the orders and what metrics were used to determine their use, the rhetoric and tone of protests rebelling against the governor's orders, the chaos of the November election, the allocation of federal COVID-relief funds and controversial remarks by Shirkey about Whitmer. 

In a video that made national headlines, Shirkey said Republican lawmakers had "spanked" Whitmer in multiple political battles. Shirkey later apologized for "my insensitive comments."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com