Leaked Emails And A Partisan Clash: GOP Fights Whitmer On Emergency Declaration

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 8: Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan democratic gubernatorial nominee, speaks with a reporter after a Democrat Unity Rally at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel August 7th, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Whitmer will face off against republican gubernatoral nominee Bill Schuette in November. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

As Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) emergency declaration hurtles toward its expiration Thursday at midnight, Republicans are so far refusing to play ball as the governor seeks to extend it. 

Bristling under what they say is Whitmer’s executive overreach and desiring to reopen local businesses, they spent a nine-hour session on Wednesday declining to take up the emergency extension. 

For Whitmer’s part, she doesn’t think she legally needs the legislative Republicans’ approval, maintaining that the state is under an enduring state of emergency.

Just before her Wednesday press conference, she threw down the gauntlet and forwarded an email exchange, obtained by TPM, that her staff was having with the Senate Majority Leader to local news outlets. 

During the conversation, Senator Mike Shirkey’s chief of staff (R) proposed a trade.

“The following is what we propose: two one-week extensions in exchange for a public agreement that all future stay-at-home-type orders (and only those) be enacted through bipartisan legislation and the democratic process rather than executive order,” wrote chief of staff Jeremy Hendges.

Whitmer’s staff replied with a message from the governor.

“While I welcome partnership, information sharing and robust discussion with the legislature, I cannot abrogate my duty to act in an emergency to protect the lives of Michiganders,” it read. “We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has already killed 3,670 people and COVID 19 numbers continue to climb in parts of our state. Michigan remains in a state of emergency regardless of the actions you decide to take or not take.”

A spokesperson for Shirley said that he was “very disappointed” about the governor’s decision to make the emails public. “If there was any interest in his caucus working with the governor, it has evaporated,” spokeswoman Amber McCann told Michigan Live. 

At her press conference, Whitmer was unabashed. 

“The Republicans in the legislature want to negotiate opening up sectors of the economy,” she said. “They are acting as though we are in the midst of a political problem.” 

“I don’t know of any other legislature in the country that has just decided to declare that the global pandemic that killed 103 Michiganders since yesterday is over,” she added. “It is not over. We remain in a state of emergency until the order is rescinded, and I do not have any intention of rescinding that right now.”

The legislature is in session Thursday, though it is unclear if the negotiations are still viable. 

A spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) took an optimistic tone in a statement to TPM.

“The House is still willing to work with the governor and negotiate for common-sense changes to help families who are struggling during this pandemic,” said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, though he also qualified Whitmer’s executive orders as “unfair” and “outliers” in the national landscape. 

Chatfield has also previously indicated that the legislature would consider legal action if Whitmer continues to act without the lawmakers’ approval.

Part of the issue causing confusion and possible court action is that there are two conflicting state laws that the governor and the legislative Republicans are respectively citing as evidence of their authority. 

One, the “Emergency Powers of Governor” enacted in 1945, imbues the governor with broad powers after declaring a state of emergency. It has no time limit, but grants Whitmer such powers in “times of great public crisis, disaster, rioting, catastrophe, or similar public emergency within the state, or reasonable apprehension of immediate danger of a public emergency of that kind, when public safety is imperiled.” Senate Republicans voted to repeal it last week in a purely symbolic move.

The legislature is instead citing the “Emergency Management Act” of 1976 to make its case. It also grants the governor wide powers, but adds the caveat that the state of emergency can only last 28 days. After that, the governor must get legislative approval for an extension. 

Meanwhile, the governor’s stay-at-home order doesn’t expire until May 15, possibly giving Republicans fodder to argue that the order is invalid without a legislatively-extended state of emergency.

Protesters, siding with the Republicans, gathered outside the state capitol Thursday afternoon calling for “freedom” from Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Some of them temporarily entered the building. In a picture taken by Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D), a few men could be seen holding guns. The protesters had been removed from the building and the lawn a few hours after the protests surrounding the capitol began, the Clerk of the House’s office told TPM.

So far, there have been 40,399 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. At least 3,670 people have died.

“This is not a political problem, it’s a public health crisis,” said Whitmer Wednesday. “We’ve already lost over 3,700 Michiganders — that’s more than we lost in Vietnam.”

This story has been updated with the email exchange between staff of Gov. Whitmer and the Senate Majority Leader, as well as details from the protest at the capitol.

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