In a purely political environment, there’s no way the Republican-led Senate would have allowed the governor’s appointment of a new head of the Department of Health and Human Services to stand.
Elizabeth Hertel, despite her resume and deep political connections in state government, would have been dumped as a casualty of this hyper-political environment. The Legislature has few indisputable and unchallenged powers. Canning gubernatorial appointments is one of them.
Lawmakers have used that power as recently as two months ago. The Republican Senate unapologetically rejected a sex abuse and human tracking assistant prosecutor as the state’s next Children’s Ombudsman, for Pete’s sake. The Senate majority leader admitted at the time it was to make a political point.
Nothing has changed since then. Rejecting the state’s chief public health official over being shut out of the governor’s COVID-19 response seems as automatic as getting a kick from a reflex hammer to the knee.
Hertel, wife of state Sen Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, is on the same page with the governor on just about everything. She’s not declaring any of the DHHS’ prior COVID-19 reactions as mistakes.
Not the decision to allow COVID-positive patients back into nursing home. Not the contact tracing contract with a company with Democratic political connections. Not the arguably uneven restrictions on what the public can and cannot due to prevent the coronavirus’ spread.
And, yet, when a vote was put on the board to approve Hertel’s appointment, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey — the person who admitted to Hillsdale activists that he fantasized about challenging the Governor to a fist on the Capitol lawn — was a “yes.”
It’s not because Shirkey’s relationship with the governor is on the mend. It’s not. It’s not even because Shirkey is trying to mend the relationship. He’s not.
The reason is simple. DHHS is the most important state department in these pandemic times — and Whitmer isn’t going to pick anyone better.
Anybody she picks will be lockstep with her. Not only that, she could avoid the whole Senate advice and consent process by simply hiring an interim to serve for an indefinite amount of time.
The governor could rotate her deputies at DHHS in and out as interim directors, giving her even more power over the department than she does now.
No, as much as Senate R’s wanted to stick it to the governor again, the leaders allowed practicality to trump politics. It’s a rare exception to the rule. I can’t say it’s going to happen again. But on March 22, it did.
“My vote in favor of Elizabeth Hertel’s appointment does not reflect agreement with her decisions as deputy director and now as director of MDHHS, but rather my belief that her background and expertise make her qualified for the job,” Shirkey said.
Hertel returns his phone calls. She returns all of his members’ calls. She’s responsive, even if it’s not always the answer he wants to hear.
Also, the Senate has a new chairman of the DHHS budget committee in Sen. Rick Outman. Outman’s staff has worked with Hertel for years and reportedly has a positive rapport that will ease that senator’s transition to one of the most complex jobs in the Legislature.
Hertel isn’t a rabid partisan. One of her first jobs in Lansing was working for the House Republican policy staff with Shirkey’s predecessor in the Senate.
Anybody Whitmer would pick as a replacement to Hertel would be a downgrade, causing more of a long-term pain that would have worse than the short-term praise and admiration Shirkey & Co. would have received the grassroots conservatives.
Also, Hertel’s husband is a state senator. I know it’s all big boys and girls in the Senate, but we’re human, too. Sen. Hertel would have kept a stiff upper lip if his colleagues voted his wife out of a job. But how weird would that have been?
Hertel actually works with Republicans to get stuff done. Does the majority really want to damage one of their last direct conduits to the governor?
No. They don’t. It’s a sign practicality can still win in those rare cases and bipartisanship in Lansing isn’t completely dead.