The Michigan Legislature could repeal Whitmer’s emergency powers. And she can’t veto the law.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

There’s been no shortage of attempts to quash Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, from bills in the Republican-led Legislature to lawsuits to recall petitions.

But the right-wing Unlock Michigan ballot proposal has emerged as the strongest effort to take on the Democratic governor. 

An official for the group said Tuesday that it’s poised to collect the requisite number of petition signatures that would repeal a law that gives Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the ability to unilaterally issue emergency executive orders related to issues like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Spokesman Fred Wszolek said that signature gatherers have been carrying out in-person and social media efforts. 

“We exceeded our goal of 400,000 signatures over Labor Day weekend,” Wszolek said. He added that the group will look to collect close to 500,000 signatures before submitting them to the Bureau of Elections for approval. 

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The petition seeks to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which the Legislature passed to give the governor additional emergency powers. It does not set a time limit on how long an emergency declared by the governor can be carried out. And it does not provide a role for the Legislature in approving or extending a state of emergency, something that has irked GOP leaders who run the current Legislature.

Whitmer has used that law as the basis for many of her actions responding to the widespread and severe health, economic, and social harms by the COVID-19 pandemic. That included declaring a state of disaster, issuing stay-home orders and directives limiting business operations. 

A total of 107,812 total Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 6,539 have died from the virus since March 10. An Imperial College London and Oxford University study credited Whitmer’s stay-home order with saving thousands of lives in Michigan.

The Unlock Michigan effort would need to secure 340,047 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters in support of its petition within 180 days to place the measure before the Legislature. The Legislature would then have 40 days to pass the proposed law. If the Legislature does not approve the initiative, it goes on the ballot. 

But that’s not expected to happen. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and other GOP lawmakers have thrown their support behind the petition drive.

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If the GOP-led body approves the citizen-led initiative — which it almost certainly will — the measure becomes law. And it does not need Whitmer’s signature. This is a tactic that groups like Right to Life of Michigan have long used as an end-run around governors who won’t sign their bills.

And that means that voters may not get to have their say, even as polling has shown majority support for Whitmer’s COVID-19 response.

Keep Michigan Safe is the coalition that is fighting the Unlock Michigan effort and is urging people to not sign petitions. The group plans to challenge Unlock Michigan’s petitions if they’re filed.

“Looking ahead, given the magnitude of the fraud, the lies, the cut corners, we’re going to be conducting a very thorough review of signatures, if submitted and state election officials, as they are required, should give the signatures a thorough review,” said spokesman Mark Fisk. 

Joe Schwarz, a GOP former state senator and U.S. House member from Battle Creek, leads Keep Michigan Safe. He said Saturday that the days of cooperation between Michigan’s governor and state Legislature are long gone. 

“The virus is still out there,” said Schwarz, who also is a surgeon. “And it is ubiquitously still out there. I don’t agree with the governor on everything but I think that she is doing the right thing.” 

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Schwarz, who served in the state Senate from 1987 to 2002 and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002, believes that Lansing is too partisan these days — and that sometimes affects good public policy.

“The partisanship that rules the scene now didn’t exist back then,” Schwarz said. “Yes, there were partisans, there were Democrats and Republicans but I used John Engler as an example who was thought to be the most partisan guy around. And maybe on some issues he was. But on difficult issues, he would call the legislative leadership over to his office. There was open debate, honest debate on issues about what should be done.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) told the Advance on Tuesday that Whitmer is doing an “incredible” job in the effort to fight COVID-19 and that sexism plays a role in the fight against her.  

“I thank her all the time for saving lives,” said Stabenow, who served in the state Senate and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994 before her service on Capitol Hill that started in the U.S. House in 1997 and the U.S. Senate in 2001. “No one asked to put in this situation to make the incredibly tough decisions that she has had to make everyday.” 

“I think that you have a combination of attacks that are partisan that we’ve seen over the years in Lansing, and you see in D.C. And I think for some of the folks speaking out against the governor, it gauls them even more that not only she’s a strong, effective Democrat but she’s a strong, effective Democratic woman,” Stabenow continued.  

Lying to get petition signatures is legal in Michigan. Can that change without hurting free speech?

Wszolek rejects the notion that the effort is either partisan or sexist toward Whitmer. 

“We don’t think any politicians should be given a unlimited grant of extraordinary power forever, and it doesn’t matter whether that politician is Gretchen Whitmer or [GOP former Attorney General] Bill Schuette, or for that matter, Donald Trump,” Wszolek said. “No one should be allowed to rule by decree without checks and balance.”

Keep Michigan Safe filed a lawsuit in July in the Court of Appeals seeking to have Unlock Michigan’s petition withdrawn by the Board of State Canvassers, the body in charge of approving groups’ ballot language. The court dismissed the claim last month. 

Fisk told the Advance that Keep Michigan Safe has asked the state Supreme Court to review and reverse that decision “because the Board of Canvassers did not fulfill its duty to write a summary that informs voters and petition signers of the effect and substance of this proposal.” 

Longtime GOP strategist Bob LaBrant last month filed a campaign finance complaint with the Michigan Bureau of Elections involving the petition drive. LaBrant argued that the nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a group tied to Republican consultants, should have to file its own fundraising disclosures after making a series of contributions to the Unlock Michigan petition drive.  

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The Michigan Democratic Party also argues that Unlock Michigan is “illegally” receiving support from Stand Up Michigan. Stand Up Michigan (SUM) sent an email on Aug. 5 seeking to raise money to support and promote the Unlock Michigan petition drive. SUM sent another email on Aug.11 soliciting contributions to pay for Unlock Michigan’s petition drive and asking people to sign and circulate the petition. Its website includes a video on how to fill out the petition, as well as a video from Shirkey promoting Unlock Michigan and thanking SUM for its work supporting the petition drive.

“This complaint outlines the continued illegal, unscrupulous and deceitful efforts by Unlock Michigan and Stand Up Michigan to get petition signatures at any cost,” MDP Chair Lavora Barnes said. “These groups are working hand-in-hand on this partisan petition drive without properly disclosing their finances, breaking the law while putting lives at risk.” 

The MDP did not sign on to LaBrant’s complaint. However, Grand Traverse Democratic Party Chair Chris Cracchiolo did and said his position is not about partisanship. 

“I think that law needs to remain whoever the governor is. [Whitmer] needs to have the ability to say when there is an emergency in the state of Michigan,” said Cracchiolo. “She should have the ability to do certain things.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.