LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Senate on Tuesday narrowly supported Elizabeth Hertel as state health director, backing a key figure in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in recent months.
The Republican-led chamber endorsed the Democratic governor's appointee 18-16, with Democrats and four GOP senators voting yes.
Hertel took over the state Department of Health and Human Services in January following the abrupt resignation of Robert Gordon — her former boss — and has gradually loosened COVID-19 restrictions.
Sixteen Republicans opposed Hertel, voicing long-running frustrations that Whitmer has used the health department to keep intact coronavirus orders after the Michigan Supreme Court last fall struck down a 75-year-old emergency-powers law that underpinned her edicts. But they did not have enough votes to reject Hertel by Tuesday's 60-day deadline.
The Senate fell one vote short of passing a motion to affirm Hertel when her husband, Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., recused himself. But her appointment stands.
“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,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a written statement. He credited her increased communication with lawmakers.
Hertel, 42, had cache with some GOP senators from her past jobs working for legislative Republicans. Before being elevated to director, she had been a chief deputy director under Gordon for two years and, from 2013 to 2016, held top positions in the department during Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.
Still, Republicans voted against her appointment, saying she should have acknowledged more mistakes in how the Whitmer administration handled the virus outbreak. They pointed to nursing home policies and the lack of a system in which restaurant capacity restrictions would be automatically eased or tightened based on specific metrics such as testing positivity rates.
Hertel, like Gordon, has issued orders under a 1978 public health law that empowers her to act to control an epidemic. Asked in her advice-and-consent hearings if her authority should last for years, she said her job is to carry out the law and it would be up to legislators and the governor to make changes.
“Anyone who believes their bureaucratic authority exceeds the authority of those elected and serving in this chamber and the one across the rotunda is unfit for this position,” said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican who opposed Hertel.
In one year, COVID-19 has contributed to nearly 17,000 Michigan deaths. Cases are surging a third time. The seven-day average was 3,275 on Sunday, double from two weeks before. Michigan had the country's fourth-highest per-capita infection rate in the prior week.
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