No vote on DHHS director, but 7 GOP senators urge rejection

DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel testifies before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, March 4, 2021 | Screenshot

Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel testified in front of the Senate Advice and Consent Committee again on Thursday, but the more than two-hour meeting was inconclusive on whether or not the committee will reject her appointment. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January appointed Hertel, a former GOP legislative staffer who most recently was DHHS senior chief deputy director for administration, to replace department Director Robert Gordon. Hertel is married to state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing). The Senate has the power to reject Hertel’s appointment, one the body has exercised in nixing almost 20 other Whitmer nominees as part of Republicans clash with the governor over COVID restrictions.

One of the first questions in the hearing was from Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who asked Elizabeth Hertel if she was involved in former Gordon’s sudden resignation and the more than $155,000 severance agreement with the state. 

Hertel said she had no involvement in the termination or separation agreement. 

When Ananich asked if it “was a possibility that the governor and [Gordon] had a difference of opinion on the reopening of our economy, engagement with schools and other engagements,” Hertel answered yes. 

Whitmer mum on Gordon exit deal, announces COVID-19 restriction rollbacks

When later asked about the details of those disagreements between Gordon and Whitmer, Hertel said she did not say there was a disagreement.

Hertel also told committee members that when she leaves the department, she will not accept a severance agreement that includes a confidentiality clause.

The committee did not conclude with a vote, but alluded to more meetings on the horizon to ask the DHHS Director questions about how she would run the department. The Senate has until March 23 to vote on her appointment. 

The Senate is currently divided 20-16 with two vacancies. Six senators have signed on to a letter sent to Senate Advice and Consent Committee Chair Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), urging him to reject Hertel: Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.), Jim Runestead (R-White Lake), Dale Zorn (R-Ida), Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.) and Lana Theis (R-Brighton). 

Sen. Roger Victory (R-Georgetown Twp.) tweeted Thursday afternoon that he also submitted a card in opposition to Hertel’s appointment.

Although the House doesn’t play a role in approving or rejecting appointments, 25 GOP state representatives also signed onto the letter to Nesbitt. 

Those representatives include Reps. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.), Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Twp.), Matt Maddock (R-Milford), John Reilly (R-Oakland Twp.), Robert Bezotte (R-Howell), David Martin (R-Davison), Andrew Fink (R-Adams Twp.), Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), Matt Hall (R-Marshall), Julie Alexander (R-Hanover), Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan), Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), Brad Paquette (R-Niles), Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair Twp.), Andrew Beeler (R-Ft. Gratiot), Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville), Bradley Slagh (R-Zeeland), Annette Glenn (R-Midland), Daire Rendon (R-Lake City), Ken Borton (R-Gaylord), Sue Allor (R-Wolverine), John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs), Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) and Greg Markannen (R-Hancock).

However, near the end of the committee meeting, Hertel did get support from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, which has pushed back against tight COVID-19 restrictions in the past. 

Whitmer calls GOP Senate spurning key appointments ‘disruptive and dangerous’

But as case rates and positivity rates drop, Hertel said the state will continue moving forward with loosening restrictions.

Our state is lucky to have someone as qualified, capable and dedicated as Director Hertel at its helm, especially during this global health crisis,” Ananich said in a statement Thursday. “Her resume is a mile long and she’s proven to be extremely successful working with Republicans and Democrats, in the private and public health sectors, in both policy and administration. Should Senate Republicans manipulate the advice and consent process to achieve a political goal, that would send a terrible message to Michigan residents their agenda is more important than the success of our state’s health services.”