Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit)
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, a vexing pandemic that has sickened more than 47,000 and killed 4,500 in Michigan, a Detroit Democrat — herself a victim — has cast aside the will of her local delegation and bucked her party in a key vote that has left many incredulous.
State Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) was the only member of the Detroit state House delegation who did not sign a April 24 letter endorsed by 35 of the 51-member House Democratic caucus. It requested House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) condemn the April 15 actions of “Operation Gridlock” protesters. The rally was promoted by conservative organizations with ties to the GOP and the billionaire DeVos family.
“At the rally, numerous expressions of racist and anti-Semitic symbology were present. From confederate flags to Nazi swastikas, the presence of these aggressive and overt symbols of hate and division cast a dark shadow,” the April 24 letter reads, in part. “… We ask that you publicly and forcefully denounce the actions of the protesters who brought hate to our Capitol.”
The following week, in a largely partisan 59-41 vote, the House passed Senate Bill 858, which aimed to cap Whitmer’s power and would have allowed restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and other public venues to open by May 15 — if it had received immediate effect, which it didn’t. A smaller right-wing protest was held that day with about 200 activists, many with guns, filling the Capitol. Some armed activists tried to get on the House floor, while others were allowed in the Senate gallery.
Whitmer vetoed the bill, as promised, last week, writing in her veto letter: “I will not sign any bills that constrain my ability to protect the people of Michigan from a deadly pandemic in a timely manner.”
Whitsett, who says she is a COVID-19 survivor, voted with Republicans on the measure that to limit the number of days a governor could unilaterally declare a state of emergency. She was the only Democrat to do so.
The Michigan Advance made numerous requests for an interview over several days this month. Whitsett finally replied through text message: “No. Thank you.”
Theo Broughton, a constituent who has lived in her west Detroit home for more than 30 years, said that Whitsett should have signed the House Democrats letter to Chatfield. Broughton also is troubled by the freshman lawmaker’s vote to limit Whitmer’s emergency powers. Broughton argued that puts the Detroit Democrat on the other side many of her constituents who have disagreed with the Lansing protests and supported Whitmer’s stay-home order.
“It’s odd that she would go against the governor,” said Broughton, who founded a community organization in 1992 called Hood Research dedicated to analyzing the voting record and assessing the performance of area elected officials. “It’s OK for you to say that you have [COVID-19], but when the governor wants to continue making moves that keep people safe you go against that?”
The coronavirus crisis has hit urban areas like Whitsett’s home of Wayne County hard.
The county has the most COVID-19 cases in the state and Detroit, the county seat, has experienced a majority of the confirmed cases. Like Whitsett, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) contracted the virus. Jones and Carter have since returned to work.
But state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died from coronavirus-like symptoms on March 29.
Whitsett said she contracted the COVID-19 virus in March and took the drug hydroxychloroquine, which had been touted by President Donald Trump as a possible cure. However, doctors have said there are risks with the drug, which has been linked to heart problems and even death in some patients.
Nonetheless, Whitsett has credited Trump for its availability, saying that the anti-malaria drug saved her life.
Last month, she did a series of interviews related to her illness, praising Trump on Fox News. She has gotten positive coverage from conservative media, including the National Review and the conservative Detroit News opinion section.
Along with other virus survivors, Whitsett on April 14 visited the White House and met with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“She thought she was dead,” Trump said. “I think she’ll be voting for me now.” Whitsett endorsed Biden last September.
Two weeks later, the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, where Whitsett’s district resides, unanimously passed a resolution to censure her. The body said that she broke protocol by meeting with Trump and Pence.
Just after the censure, she tweeted: “I don’t care about the political party bosses. I’m going to keep fighting for Detroit. I’m going to keep thanking @realdonaldtrump for his advice.”
Whitsett is facing three Democratic opponents in the August primary, which isn’t unusual in Detroit politics. Democratic Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was one of Whitsett’s biggest supporters during her 2018 campaign and went door-to-door with her that summer. Last week, he expressed continued support for her.
“Karen Whitsett is an excellent state rep who was suffering from COVID-19 and feels that hydroxychloroquine helped her, and she expressed that,” Duggan said. “There is room in the Democratic Party for a whole range of opinions. We need to be friends and stop fighting with each other and pull together right now. We need all Democrats pulling together.”
The first-term lawmaker has been in the news for most of the year. In February, she told WWJ-AM 950 in metro Detroit that Democratic leadership in the House is “racist” toward her specifically State House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), who she said disagreed with her support for auto no-fault reform. Greig called Whitsett’s accusation “demonstrably false.”
Whitsett, whose district is overwhelmingly Democratic and includes portions of Detroit and Dearborn, has attracted support from longtime Republican political consultant Stu Sandler, who has worked for former attorneys general Mike Cox and Bill Schuette. The latter lost his 2018 gubernatorial bid to Whitmer.
“It is amazing what [Karen Whitsett] has done since COVID-19 threatened her life and her husband’s life,” Sandler tweeted on April 26. “She is helping feed Detroit, provide PPE [personal protection equipment] and cleaning equipment to Detroit law enforcement and help get laptops in the hands of Detroit school kids who don’t have them. Let’s show her she doesn’t deserve censure. She deserves support. Go to laptopsfordetroitkids.com.”
Whitsett replied to his tweet with one of her own: “Thank you Stu Sandler!”
Sandler is listed as the organizer of the GoFundMe web page. He did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
History of Dems breaking ranks
Whitsett would not be the first House Democrat in recent years to break caucus ranks and vote with Republicans on key matters.
Former Rep. John Olumba of Detroit bolted from the Democratic caucus, became an independent, and routinely voted with Republicans during the latter half of the 2012-14 session.
“The Democratic Party has to start recognizing its most loyal constituents,” Olumba said during a 2013 news conference.
Former state Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit) voted with Republicans on a budget bill because it included funding to repair two Olympic-sized swimming pools located in his district. In 2015, his votes with Republicans were so frequent that he was booted out of Democratic caucus meetings. He went on to work for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.
Santana’s spouse, state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), has proposed a resolution that would ban Confederate flag imagery from the state Capitol in light of recent protests.
And perhaps most significantly, former Rep. Roy Schmidt (D-Grand Rapids) flipped parties before the candidate filing deadline in 2012. A one-person grand jury investigation was launched into his alleged election-rigging deal with then-House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall), but they were both eventually cleared. Schmidt ended up losing that November to Democrat Winnie Brinks, who’s now a state senator. In 2016, Schmidt was convicted for selling marijuana.
Concerns back home
Detroit activists remain most concerned about Whitsett’s lack of response to the April 15 right-wing protest.
The Rev. Charles Williams II, National Action Network Michigan chair and pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, believes that Whitsett should condemn the Lansing protest rally for its “racist undertones,” either independently or through the House Democratic caucus. He stopped short, however, of criticizing her connection with Republicans — if it means securing vital resources for her constituents.
“This season that we’re in should have less to do politics and more to do with helping people survive this horrible virus,” Williams said.
Gary Pollard, veteran political activist and former Wayne State University board president who competed for the 9th District seat against Whitsett in 2018, believes she should have signed the House Democrat letter to Chatfield. He currently works as an executive assistant to Whitmer and will not vie for the seat this cycle.
“What she’s done is a slap in the face to our residents in the district who are obeying the edicts that the governor has issued,” said Pollard.
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