GOP Legislature moves toward suing Whitmer, as armed protestors watched from Senate gallery

By: and - April 30, 2020 8:09 pm

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Updated, 10:12 a.m., 5/1/20

As Senate members sat in session on Thursday, about 20 protesters, some of whom were armed with long guns, stood above in the gallery, while roughly 600 more protested on the Capitol lawn and outside the House and Senate chambers.  

Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today,” state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) tweeted from the Senate floor about law enforcement in the chamber. 

While right-wing protesters flooded the Capitol lawn, House and Senate sessions pressed on to vote on bills that would limit the governor’s power and allow lawmakers to take her to court if she expands the state of emergency declaration without approval from the Legislature.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did just that on Thursday evening.

She signed Executive Order 2020-68, which declares a state of emergency and a state of disaster until May 28. Last week, she signed an extended stay-home order until May 15. This week, it was upheld in court.

“While some members of the Legislature might believe this crisis is over, common sense and all of the scientific data tells us we’re not out of the woods yet,” Whitmer said in a statement. “By refusing to extend the emergency and disaster declaration, Republican lawmakers are putting their heads in the sand and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk. I’m not going to let that happen.” 

In Michigan, more than 40,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 3,700 have died. Michigan has the third-most deaths in the country. Although the number of deaths has been slowing overall, areas in West and South-Central Michigan have seen upticks.

Whitmer extends stay-home order, but allows some businesses to open

One member of the Legislature, state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), died last month after experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms.

Polehanki told the Advance that many of the protesters inside of the building weren’t wearing masks, and pictures and videos show that they were not following social-distancing guidelines in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Aside from the menace of the guns, having … unmasked people whose germs are likely raining down on us is equally as troubling,” she said.* 

Polehanki’s tweet was widely shared and national media reported on the protest, which had one arrest.

Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP director who has broken with the party over President Trump, was critical of the armed protestors being allowed in the Senate gallery Thursday.

“I worked with every Republican leader – in both the Michigan House and Senate; very closely with most – from 1990-2104,” Timmer wrote on Twitter. “This crazy batshit would never have been sanctioned. Not by any.”

Michigan reaches more than 41K COVID-19 cases, 3,700 deaths

Republicans move to sue Whitmer 

Two resolutions passed through the House and Senate Thursday afternoon, one of which authorized Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) to take legal action against Whitmer if she unilaterally moves to extend the state of emergency declaration. 

On Thursday, the GOP leaders refused to extend the state of emergency after doing so earlier this month. Whitmer declared the state of emergency on March 10 — the day that Michigan reported its first two COVID-19 cases — and reinstated on April 1. It is set to expire by the end of day Thursday.

Whitmer this week asked the Legislature to approve a 28-day extension to the state of emergency. The request was denied.

As the Advance previously reported, Shirkey proposed a deal with the governor Wednesday to offer two, one-week extensions of the state of emergency order if the Legislature was able to have decisive power in emergency actions. 

Whitmer denied the offer. 

In heated Friday session, GOP leaders create Republican-heavy oversight committee on Whitmer

The Democratic governor, who the GOP-led Legislature has been fighting for weeks on her COVID-19 measures, told Shirkey Chief of Staff Jeremy Hendges in an email Wednesday that “Michigan remains in a state of emergency regardless of the actions you decide to take or not take.” 

Whitmer’s office maintains she holds legal authority to continue her emergency orders without the Legislature’s approval under the Constitution and the Emergency Powers of Governor Act.  

Republican leaders disagree and have taken a step toward legal action with Senate Resolution 114, introduced by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), and House Resolution 250, introduced by State Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), who is running for Congress in the open 10th District. They were both passed with a voice vote, despite a large number of objections from Democrats. 

On Thursday, Shirkey said Whitmer’s rejection of his offer was “underhanded, unprofessional and shameless.”

“If she does not recognize the end of the emergency declaration, we have no other choice but to act on behalf of our constituents,” he said. 

GOP Legislature rebuffs Whitmer, only extends state emergency to April 30

Chatfield said that the actions taken by the Legislature were made to protect the state’s separation of powers.

“Here in the United States of America and in the great state of Michigan, we have processes and a constitution by which we handle pandemics like this, and it is called separation of powers, checks and balances, that are enumerated within our constitution,” he said. “This is not tying anyone’s hands. This is the Legislature extending our hand to the governor.”

Democrats blasted the actions.

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said ahead of what is expected to be a challenging budget — Whitmer has warned Michigan could face a shortfall of $7 billion over the next two fiscal years — the Legislature should not be paying for lawyers to sue the governor.

“Here we are talking about hiring a bunch of fancy lawyers to advance a political cause. It’s disappointing. I oppose it,” Irwin said. “I would not for a second say that you shouldn’t stand up for your views and spend a whole bunch of public money doing it if you were coming forward in the previous weeks or even here today, and saying ‘let’s get together.’ 

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

“Let’s talk about how we can provide for these employees. Let’s talk about how we can provide testing. Let’s talk about how we can help the governor get these unemployment checks into people’s hands. Let’s talk about contract tracing or small business help,’” he continued. “No, you’re here talking about suing the governor, hiring fancy lawyers, rather than getting to work, rolling up your sleeves and helping the people of Michigan.” 

Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) said the Senate’s vote to pass SR 114 is “ironic.”

“This will accomplish nothing; neither will a lawsuit. It will waste a ton of taxpayer money, but it’ll accomplish nothing,” Hertel said. “But please, don’t get up here and tell me that you’re for all these things in the executive orders, and then ask to have power to sue the governor to end them. That makes absolutely no logical sense, and anyone in the state can look through that.”

Conservative protest in the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

More measures take aim at gov. on COVID-19

The Senate also passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 25, which demands Whitmer release more COVID-19  data, including county-by-county numbers. 

The House passed two bills which further modify the governor’s powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate Bill 858, introduced by Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), codifies 28 of the governor’s executive orders, establishing definitive end dates for each, and would allow for restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and other public venues to open by May 15.

The bill passed through the House with a 59-41 vote and through the Senate with a 22-16 vote. 

Khaldun: Michigan’s COVID-19 fight likely will last until 2021

A statement released by Whitmer’s office Thursday evening said “the governor will not sign any bills that constrain her ability to protect the people of Michigan from this deadly virus in a timely manner. The governor intends to veto this bill when presented to her.”

A number of lawmakers took to the floor to speak in support or opposition of the bill. 

“To think that now, during this time of uncertainty, we are going to fail to give our state government every possible tool to address this crisis is to fail Michigan residents, to fail future generations of our people and to fail the legislators who came before us who tried to prepare our government to deal with such emergencies,” said state Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.).

“This bill seeks to at best serve as a political distraction from the goal of defeating coronavirus. At worst, it seeks to tie the hands of our governor and the state government and undermine the work of medical experts.”

State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), who contracted COVID-19 last month, thanked Whitmer for her stay-home actions and questioned the members why there wasn’t a similar push to limit executive powers during the Flint water crisis under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s watch. 

“We must ensure that our state can respond quickly and decisively to a situation that changes day-by-day, and that means ensuring our governor has the emergency powers necessary to lead us in this fight,” Carter said. “We have had many opportunities to limit the power of the governor in the last six years since [the Flint water crisis] and we have never done it. Why now?”

‘Damn, I’ll be dead by then’: Detroit COVID-19 survivors talk about waiting for tests and the virus’ toll 

State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Twp.), who is running for Congress in the open 3rd District, took to the floor in support of the proposed bills to limit the governor’s executive powers. 

“I am really disappointed in the governor and I think shame on her for stoking the fear that she has been stoking when she could be reassuring the masses,” Afendoulis said. 

Another bill that passed through the House, introduced by State Rep. Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance), reduces the crime of disobeying an order during the state of emergency from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction and may be fined up to $100. House Bill 5709 passed through the House with a 61-38 vote. 

Legislator social media reactions

During another long session day, lawmakers took to Twitter and Facebook to give updates and often share frustrations.

In a 2 p.m. Facebook post, Shirkey said the state Legislature Thursday is “making history.” He made no specific mention of the raucous protests at the Capitol, but compared the day to when Right to Work was passed in Michigan in 2012. There were more than 10,000 protestors that day and several were pepper sprayed. Many protestors and even some members of the media weren’t allowed in.

“We are leading the transition from governance by Executive Order to governance by normal order of the legislative process,” Shirkey wrote Thursday. “No one in the Legislature denies the threat and impact of this insidious virus. … But it’s time we learn from real science…observation.”

But state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) described the day’s agenda as “nothing but nonsense.”

State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) posted a photo taken from above the protest showing the small crowd of protestors.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) posted to his Facebook about “armed protesters currently attempting to storm the House floor.”

“People are suffering and dying every day in Michigan from COVID 19. Meanwhile at the Capitol certain of our fellow Michiganders are in a celebratory mood jamming-out to Journey and the Beatles with no attempt to socially distance and barely any wearing masks,” Rabhi wrote

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.