Whitmer: GOP Senate rejecting bio professor for state board is “sexist,” retaliatory

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate on Thursday voted to reject one of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s appointments to the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), which regulates hunting and fishing. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Before the vote was taken, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told the Advance the office believes rejection of Lansing Community College biology professor Anna Mitterling is a “sexist” move to try to force the governor to withdraw another NRC appointee, former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, because of his stance on gun control.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) called that “shameful” and said there were real concerns with Mitterling’s ability to fill the role.

Mitterling was blocked by a 20-16 party-line vote. State Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) were not present for any votes today. 

The last time a governor’s appointment was rejected was roughly a decade ago when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, had several picks held up by the GOP-led Senate in 2010. It was Granholm’s last year in office and Republicans said a term-limited governor shouldn’t be able to appoint officials whose terms would start after hers. 

This wasn’t the only time that Republicans blocked Whitmer’s actions in environmental policy. Last year, the state House and Senate overturned Whitmer’s first executive order reorganizing what’s now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) — the first time that had happened in more than 40 years. At the time, Shirkey said the Senate took a deliberative approach, but the measure “goes a step too far.”

GOP Legislature kills Whitmer environmental order

Mitterling has a master’s degree in fisheries and wildlife from Michigan State University and has several mentorship experiences under her belt, including in hunting and science. She is described as a political independent in Whitmer’s appointment announcement.

Mitterling is nothing, if not overqualified for the position, state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) told the Senate before the final vote. He dared anyone to get up and make a compelling argument that she is not qualified. No one spoke up, and Hertel called out Republicans for playing political games to try and force the governor to yank Heartwell.

Sen. Curtis Hertel at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“They are mad about a man, so they’re going to take it out on a qualified woman,” Hertel said. “They decided to use this young woman in a political game because they don’t like that George Heartwell said something negative about guns at a city council meeting because he didn’t want guns at a City Council meeting.”

The National Rifle Association has taken issue with Heartwell supporting gun reforms and urged the Senate to ax his appointment. According to Michigan Radio, back in 2013, Heartwell said while serving as Grand Rapids that he respects guns, but doesn’t think they belong in City Hall.

The Michigan Sierra Club criticized Mitterling’s rejection.

“Instead of putting the interests of Michiganders and our natural resources first, Repubs rather play political games and put the interests of the NRA above all,” the group wrote on Twitter Thursday. “Anna Mitterling is highly talented and qualified and we have no doubt in her ability on the NRC. Disgraceful.”

Hertel said this vote will have consequences for Mitterling. For the rest of her life, when her children or future employers Google her name, it will say, “Rejected by the Michigan Senate.”

“I understand that it is not easy to stand up to your leadership,” he told Republicans. “It is immoral to put her in the middle of this political game.”

The state Senate has 60 days to reject gubernatorial appointments to NRC and other commissions and offices. These appointments are first reviewed by the Senate Advice and Consent Committee,currently chaired by state Sen. Pete Lucido (R-Shelby Twp) who is currently under Senate investigation for multiple claims of sexual harassment. Then the appointment goes to a vote on the Senate floor.

I tried to interview Sen. Peter Lucido. He told me a group of schoolboys ‘could have a lot of fun’ with me.

Hertel said Luicido should not be on the committee that determines if people are qualified to serve when he’s in the middle of an investigation.

The governor’s office released a statement before the vote, calling out Lucido and Shirkey.

“These are the kinds of partisan games Pete Lucido and the Republican caucus are playing,” Brown said. “Now, they’re threatening to reject a qualified woman who has dedicated her career to wildlife conservation because they didn’t get what they want. Sen. Shirkey had promised to turn over a new leaf, but it’s now clear that they care more about their sexist, partisan games than the well-being of our state.”

(L-R): Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Shirkey responded that none of this had to do with “sex” and had everything to do with finding the best candidate.

“I think it’s shameful, quite frankly, for a governor and particularly this governor to invoke race and sex and something of this nature because they just diminishes the candidate themselves,” Shirkey said. “It’s just shameful for her to even go there.”

Hertel said Shirkey’s office called Whitmer and asked for Heartwell to be removed and if she didn’t remove him, Republicans would go after Mitterling. 

Shirkey didn’t mention Heartwell, but told reporters after the vote that calls like that, to negotiate and compromise, are not uncommon. He said Republicans “tried to find middle ground with the governor.”

Shirkey said there were serious concerns raised during Mitterling’s interview for the position, including her inability to “understand the intensity of the commission.” He said she “just came across as being a little bit, not willing to make tough decisions.”

GOP Senate brings back oversight of Dem gov’s appointments

Shirkey said review processes like the one for Mitterling happen all the time. 

“We’ve been very rigorous and very disciplined about candidates going through the Advice and Consent Committee, this term,” Shirkey said. “I frankly regret the fact that we kind of lost that discipline over the last few years.”

Upon becoming majority leader in 2019, Shirkey created the Advice and Consent Committee to oversee gubernatorial appointments. During the eight previous years during GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure, there was no such panel in the Republican-led Senate and none of his appointments were rejected.