The Michigan Senate’s rejection of Anna Mitterling to the Natural Resources Commission is the shot heard around Lansing as the start of the 2020 political season in town.
Before last Thursday’s vote, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at least went through the motions of attempting to work together with bipartisanship spirit. There were conflicts.
The Senate rejected the governor’s reorganization of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy. The budget standoff lasted forever. The governor had to sign off on changes to State Administrative Board.
But this was part of a high-stakes chess game. One side was trying to outfox the other in the arena of public policy and public perception.
Rejecting the appointment of a political neophyte without any previous smoke signals of trouble during the advice and consent process is different.
This is the biggest Republican political asset, the NRA, having a problem with Whitmer’s appointment to the Natural Resources Commission, former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. As Mayor, Heartwell attempted to ban guns from city commission meetings, which ignited the ire of Second Amendment defenders.
In 2020, the issue that is moving conservatives is guns. With the rising tide of gun violence and Democrats picking up some public momentum on policies to put some restrictions on those viewed as a threat to themselves or others, pro-gun advocates are mobilizing.
Look at what’s going on in the rural counties. Thirteen county commissions have recently passed what they are calling “sanctuary county ordinances.” They are telling their sheriffs and prosecutors not to enforce laws that they feel inhibit a person’s ability to own or possess a firearm. More counties are on the way, from Lapeer to Delta County.
The Republicans’ attraction to the NRA and gun owners isn’t new. But in 2020 this is their best issue at this time. This has their base riled up. That includes the nearly 100,000 people who have joined the Michigan for Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties Facebook web page since Christmas.
So, if gun owners have a problem with George Heartwell’s political history on this issue, Republican's need to look strong on protecting a person’s right to bear arms.
They need political leverage. Anna Mitterling, who they arguably see as being a DNR rubber stamp due to her support of the deer baiting ban, among other things, is that leverage point.
They ask the governor to rescind Heartwell’s appointment or they’ll dump Mitterling. She says no. Republicans have no choice. They have to follow through on their threat and reject Mitterling on the last day they’re allowed to do so. Otherwise, they look weak.
So why not reject Heartwell? Well, Heartwell has some political power. He was a fairly popular nonpartisan mayor in Grand Rapids who supports Democrats 75% to 80% of the time, based on his prior campaign contributions. He cut a check to Whitmer, for example.
But one Republican he likes is Jon Bumstead, a state senator he supported in an extremely competitive primary in 2018 and competitive general election. The Senate R’s don’t want to stick Bumstead with this Morton’s fork: Vote against his friend and political supporter or vote against Second Amendment supporters.
Also, the Kent County treasurer’s position is expected to open up this year. One name being circulated as a potential replacement is that of Senate Majority Floor Leader Pete MacGregor, who is term limited after 2022. Would MacGregor want to burn that bridge with Heartwell by voting to reject him from a state post?
You can see the conundrum Republicans find themselves in.
Clearly, the governor is unsympathetic. She is knee-capping the Republicans in a political sore spot — Sen. Pete Lucido and the on-going sexual harassment investigation. She’s tying Lucido’s troubles with the rejection of a woman who — on paper — is a qualified individual to the NRC. Whitmer is calling on Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to end his “sexist partisan games.”
Granholm’s communications director, Zack Pohl, continued this attack line on social media and state representatives, including like Laurie Pohutsky and Julie Brixie, picked up on it.
Now, Shirkey’s calling the governor as “bat shit crazy” last November can’t be seen as a one off. Even though he’s treating the Lucido matter seriously with an independent investigation, the Democrats have their thread to pull. They’re challenging the Republicans:
Go ahead and play your guns card. We’ll play the sexist card. The political game has begun.
The governor and Shirkey’s relations will not be the same. They’ll agree to get a budget done. Some supplemental items and possibly some lower-profile policy matters will be settled this year. But discussion on fixing the damn roads with any type of revenue increase is likely iced until after the election at the earliest.
(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)