Whitmer appointee Heartwell under fire from gun rights advocates

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Former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell on Thursday defended his ability to chair the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), which regulates hunting and fishing. 

He appeared in front of the state Senate Advice and Consent Committee a week after the GOP-led Senate rejected Lansing Community College biology professor Anna Mitterling, another Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointee to the commission. 

George Heartwell testifies before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, Feb. 20, 2020 | Allison Donahue

Heartwell, a former hunter and avid fisherman, faced concerns from committee members and gun rights advocates about how he handled open carry regulations during his time as mayor. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has urged Republicans to reject his appointment.

Whitmer’s office and State Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) said that Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) wanted Heartwell’s appointment yanked and axed Mitterling when the governor declined. Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told the Advance the office believes rejecting Mitterling was a “sexist” move.

Shirkey denied the allegation and called it “shameful,” adding that Mitterling seemed “not willing to make tough decisions.”

In 2013, Heartwell proposed a city ordinance that would ban firearms in public buildings, but recognized that the ordinance was unenforceable under state law.

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“We did recognize that it was an unenforceable law, and yet we left it in place. It was a unanimous decision of a seven-member body, and we did that because we felt that it sent a signal of our displeasure, dissatisfaction and angst even over guns in public meetings,” Heartwell said.

He says he is not bringing an anti-gun agenda to the commission.

“I support hunters’ rights, including access to public land. I support the Second Amendment. I am an open-minded leader always committed to hearing all sides of an issue,” he said.

Tom Lambert, President of the group Michigan Open Carry, testified in front of the committee and said that Heartwell’s history of gun regulations makes him unfit for the NRC.

“Our society would be better off with more people like Mr. Heartwell. That is a given. It is easy for me to say that,” Lambert said. “However, there are also flaws, just like with every human being. And those flaws may be relevant when it comes to who we give government power to.”

Heartwell also answered questions about his decisions to resign from the Michigan Transportation Commission when he accepted the position with the Natural Resources Commission, his own history with hunting and fishing, and was quizzed on specific hunting and fishing issues, like early fishing seasons and deer baiting.

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The state Senate has 60 days to reject gubernatorial appointments to NRC and other commissions and offices through a majority vote.

Senate Advice and Consent Committee Chair Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.) who said he can’t say which way he is leaning yet or if he expects a vote to accept or reject the nomination of Heartwell to happen. 

“I don’t expect [a vote by the committee] until after we confer. I mean, let’s be real, we just got done with the hearing,” Lucido said. “We have not voted but for one person so far. So we must not have had a problem with the other ones, and those were females also.”

Senate Advice and Consent Committee Chair Peter Lucido, Feb. 20, 2020 | Allison Donahue

But Lucido did say the amount of public testimony in Heartwell’s nomination is unusual.

“We haven’t seen [this much public testimony] in the other candidates, but we have had a lot of opposition on this candidate. And you can see what’s been going on here today. It’s obvious,” Lucido said. 

Hertel expressed frustrations with the process of making recommendations for the NRC, stating that it’s more about politics than it is about qualifications.

Sen. Curtis Hertel at the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, Feb. 20, 2020 | Allison Donahue

“They said that the problem with Mitterling was that she was not independent enough in her answers. I disagree with that interpretation,” Hertel said. “That being said, when we came to this committee, obviously, George has an extreme sense of independence, even being on the opposite side of elections from people like myself, so he’s supported Republicans and Democrats, and so he’s got a strong, independent streak. 

“So if it’s about independence, you have to support George. If it’s about a history of hunting, that’s for Anna. If it’s about politics, I guess you can find a way to not support both — but that’s only if it’s about politics.”