Susan J. Demas: The majority backs Whitmer’s pandemic actions. But it could only take 3% to stop her.

September 14, 2020 6:42 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets her flu shot, Aug. 25, 2020 | Whitmer office photo

If I were governor, most things would still be shut down in Michigan, including outdoor dining, malls and gyms that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has allowed to open with restrictions.

It would be easy, because as a longtime female political columnist, I’m quite comfortable being resented and hated, but that’s also why few journalists ever succeed in getting elected.

It’s true that Michigan has had a slower reopening than many states during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are not living in a police state, as the GOP-connected group Unlock Michigan is essentially claiming in its effort to get the Democratic governor’s emergency powers repealed to make its billionaire corporate friends happy.

The stay-home order, travel restrictions and most business closures we had in the spring are gone. But we avoided big reopening spikes like states including Florida, Arizona and Texas by taking a gradual approach.

And while some media run endless stories dedicated to the frustrations of bored, angry anti-maskers and law-breaking business owners, studies like the one from researchers at the Imperial College London and Oxford University showing Whitmer’s stay-home order likely saved tens of thousands of lives in Michigan are one-day stories.

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What does it say about what we really value that that isn’t one of the biggest stories of coronavirus? The pandemic has taken so much from us, sickening more than 100,000 in Michigan and killing more than 6,500 in six months. But we know how much worse it would have been without drastic restrictions. All we need to do is look at the examples of other states with Republican governors who put politics and corporate interests above people’s lives.

So far, Whitmer has beaten back Republicans’ many attempts to quash her emergency actions. Fueled by heavily armed, militia-backed right-wing protests at the Capitol this spring — which featured signs making death threats against Whitmer — the GOP-controlled Legislature passed legislation to repeal her powers, which she vetoed.

If Republicans had succeeded, think about how many more of your friends and neighbors would have gotten sick and died. Actions have consequences. (Republicans never shy away from framing things in such stark moral terms, by the way, which is a lesson for progressives).

When that didn’t succeed, Republicans took Whitmer to court, but most legal experts don’t believe they have much of a case. There have been some murmurings about impeachment and a few recall attempts from a motley assortment of folks. But GOP strategists know that’s a loser, since the Legislature made it almost impossible to recall a governor after liberals tried to dump Snyder over his emergency manager law — where the state took over local governments (something that would prove deadly for Flint) — and other right-wing measures.

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So that’s how the Unlock Michigan effort was born. It’s a ballot measure to chuck one of the laws Whitmer has relied on for her emergency COVID-19 orders. You would think that this would fail, too, since Whitmer has consistently been above 60% for her handling of the pandemic. Last week the Detroit News — whose right-wing editorial page trashes Whitmer on a near-daily basis — released a poll showing her at 61%.

Those are numbers politicians dream of.

But under Michigan law, signature gatherers are allowed to lie to voters. And there’s an even bigger loophole. All the group needs to do is collect 340,047 valid signatures of registered Michigan voters within 180 days — just 8% of the number of registered voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election. That comes out to roughly 4.5% of registered voters and just 3% of Michigan’s total population.

A spokesman told the Advance last week the group has already topped 400,000 signatures. If the group survives legal challenges and the petition is approved, its first stop isn’t before voters. The petition goes before the Legislature, which can approve it with a simple vote.

And Whitmer can’t veto it.

This is a tactic Right to Life has used several times as an end-run around voters who probably wouldn’t OK and governors who wouldn’t sign extreme anti-abortion bills, like requiring women to purchase “rape insurance,” something Whitmer railed against as a senator.

Michigan Republicans want to quash Whitmer’s power. Here’s a roundup of GOP power grabs in other states.

The Legislature, as I mentioned, happens to be run by Republicans who despise the governor and don’t believe that any power exercised by Democrats is legitimate. Don’t believe me? I documented all their recent partisan power grabs a year ago, before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

So if all goes according to the plans of right-wing strategists and lobbyists, just 3% of Michigan will get to dictate our response to a deadly pandemic. That’s pretty in keeping with President Trump’s authoritarian vision for America.

Talk about extremism.

Yet the saddest development has been some pundits’ insistence that Whitmer is, indeed, “going too far” — an arrogant rejection of what a majority has said in poll after poll. That also ignores the death threats and constant stream of vile, sexist bile aimed against the governor online, including comments on House and Senate GOP Facebook pages. That’s far more extreme than Whitmer’s orders to protect public health.

It’s also worth noting that GOP Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine — a favorite of moderate analysts who also took strong actions during the pandemic — has been subjected to protests and impeachment talk. One GOP lawmaker even wants to criminally charge the governor over COVID-19 restrictions, which is full-on lunacy. And Ohio’s former health director, Amy Acton, got it even worse, resigning amid vicious misogynistic and anti-Semitic attacks.

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That is all the definition of “going too far.” While it’s a staple of editorial boards — liberal and conservative alike — to constantly warn Democrats not to overplay their hands with health care, tax and climate policy, the same folks (who skew well-off, white, straight and male) tolerate far more from Republicans.

After all, most didn’t say anything about emergency managers under Snyder because hey, poor local governments just couldn’t keep their affairs in order, so the state had to step in. In this case, an angry minority of Michiganders can’t follow basic laws and refuse to wear masks — and conservative corporate groups that want nothing more than Whitmer gone in 2022 are screaming it’s not business’ job to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.

So let me put a fine point on it. It’s insane that 3% of the population and a reactionary Republican Legislature can dictate that a governor with enviably high approval ratings shouldn’t be allowed to keep the majority safe.

This isn’t politics as usual. This is a massive undemocratic power grab. And it should be a national scandal.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.