Whitmer says she and Shirkey haven’t talked about militia leaders he met last year

By: - January 27, 2021 7:09 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets ready to begin her first State of the State address with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist standing by | Casey Hull

In October, state and federal law enforcement announced a right-wing extremist kidnapping and murder plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that made international news and looks to have been a harbinger of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that killed five people.

Thirteen men, including some members of self-described militias, were arrested for the alleged plot over Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions. As the Advance has reported, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) appeared at anti-Whitmer protests last year along with some of those who were later arrested. 

He also said he held a meeting with three militia leaders in September, although he has not said who they were or what groups they were from. Shirkey initially said on JTV he wanted to help “improve their message” and said they had gotten “a bad rap,” but gave a different account last week.

Last week, Whitmer was asked at a press conference on COVID-19 about Shirkey’s meeting.

“I don’t know how to respond to the revelation that the Senate majority leader has been meeting with militia groups. … What groups did he meet with? Were any of them involved in the plot to kidnap and kill me?” she said.

In an interview with the Michigan Advance on Tuesday, Whitmer said she and Shirkey still have not discussed that meeting.

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The pair has had a rocky relationship since Whitmer, the first Democrat to run the state after eight years of complete GOP control, took office in January 2019 over her infrastructure plans, the budget and more. But her administration’s tough restrictions during the pandemic, starting in March 2020 — which have been supported by a steady majority and praised by several health experts — have been a turning point with Republicans who control the Legislature. 

While most businesses are open and indoor dining is set to resume Monday with restrictions, Republican leaders have said it’s not enough. This month, they have threatened not to pass more COVID-19 relief aid or approve Whitmer’s appointments.

Shirkey has been one of the loudest voices against restrictions and a perennial Whitmer critic, blaming her for myriad COVID issues instead of the former Trump administration, whose response has been widely panned.

“Over the past several months, our citizens have endured confusing and oppressive orders from the governor,” Shirkey said in a Tuesday statement. “The result is a failed vaccination plan for Michigan; closure policies that jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of hardworking families; and, students that are at risk of falling behind. It’s unacceptable.”

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There have been more than 550,000 cases and 14,500 deaths reported in Michigan. In the United States, more than 25.3 million people have had COVID-19 and more than 423,000 have died.

Earlier this month, Shirkey revealed that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in December.

Whitmer discussed Shirkey, working with Republicans on COVID, attending President Joe Biden’s inauguration last week and more.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Michigan Advance: Last week during a press conference, you wondered which militia groups Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey met with last year and if anybody involved was involved in the plot against you. Have you talked with him since then?

Whitmer: I have not. We had a quadrant meeting [with the top four legislative leaders] scheduled for, let’s see, it would have been two weeks ago. And he was the one member who didn’t join us. So I’ve not talked to him.

Michigan Advance: Was that when he was still ill with COVID?

Whitmer: I’m not sure. I think that it hasn’t been very clear what those dates were to me.

Michigan Advance: Republican leaders in the Legislature have said that they’re not going to pass any COVID relief funding or even OK your appointments unless all restrictions are lifted. So do you consider that to be a form of blackmail?

Whitmer: Well, I think it’s very problematic. The Legislature using the ability to keep COVID funding from our students or from our ability to build up our vaccinations, or from businesses and individuals who are struggling because of COVID, I think is really dangerous. The kids in our schools are not Republican or Democratic. They’re just kids who need the support so that they can get back on track. The ability for us to vaccinate 70% of our population isn’t about vaccinating people based on their political preferences. This is about getting to a place where we can have some normalcy.

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And so I’m hopeful that those were just knee-jerk reactions and that the legislature sees how crucial it is that we move swiftly to get these dollars into our communities, to help people through this tough time.

And I’ll keep reaching out. I’m not going to return fire. I think it’s crucial that we stay focused on the challenge ahead because it is real. And that our ability to come together to meet that challenge will mean that we’re quicker and more effective at doing it.

Michigan Advance: You attended the inauguration last week. I was just wondering what it was like for you to attend that with such heightened security, especially after a year of right-wing protests and threats, and even the assassination plot.

Whitmer: I didn’t know if I was going to go until that Monday of that week. Obviously, we were preparing for what we thought could be a situation here at our Capitol on that Sunday [with a planned right-wing protest]. And that week, the FBI was sharing information that elevated our concern. And so we made preparations and we’re fortunate nothing happened. 

And as a member of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, I thought it was important to go and to show support for an administration that I think is going to be a wonderful partner for us, whether it’s on COVID or economic re-engagement, or getting our kids back on track. And so I wanted to be there.

It was surreal. It was very calm and quiet. I never felt unsafe. And I think it was really important that we honor the traditions of our nation, give people the peace of mind that this democracy is stronger than the challenges that we’ve confronted. And give President Biden the opportunity to lay out a vision for America united. And I think we kept people safe and we accomplished those goals. And I was very proud to have been a part of the committee, and very honored to be included as one of the people that was there.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on 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.