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Michigan’s new House speaker: We’ll fight Whitmer until she works with GOP

LANSING — New Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth says he’s ready to “lock arms and compromise” with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but is prepared to fight her in an attempt to restore the “checks and balances in government that people want.”

Weeks into his new role, Wentworth is leading House Republicans in a showdown against Whitmer and her continued COVID-19 business restrictions by refusing to approve a $5.6 billion supplemental spending plan the Democratic governor introduced last week without, he noted, consulting GOP leaders first.

Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature don’t want to block federal funding for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing and schools, but instead want to force negotiations over pandemic policies, Wentworth told Bridge Michigan.

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“I can’t really call her a partner until she shows she wants to be a partner,” Wentworth told Bridge Tuesday during a wide-ranging interview. “I have nothing against the governor personally. I think she’s a good person, but I think that the challenge is when she continues to act unilaterally.”

The criticism comes as Whitmer is set to deliver her annual State of the State address at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Because of continued public health concerns, the governor will not speak from the Michigan Capitol House Chambers, where lawmakers traditionally gather for a joint session to hear the speech.

Instead, the speech will be streamed and aired from a remote location and, in another nod to the pandemic, Whitmer’s third address will focus on the “road ahead” for public health and economic recovery, said communications director Tiffany Brown.

“You can expect to hear her talk about things like education, eradicating COVID-19 and making sure that the safe and effective vaccine is available,” Brown told Bridge Michigan. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and former House Speaker Lee Chatfield negotiated several COVID-19 spending plans with the governor last year, but the GOP leaders also sued her over her executive authority and spent months criticizing Whitmer for business restrictions, including an indoor dining ban set to lift Feb. 1. 

Wentworth enters the new term with a reputation as a quiet leader who prefers to work behind the scenes. 

But he’s been loud, early on, about his frustrations with Whitmer. 

Although Whitmer is allowing restaurants to reopen, her order limits capacity to 25 percent, which Wentworth called a “slap in the face” to owners he said are “hanging on by a thread.” For many restaurants, both urban and rural, “opening at 25 percent capacity is not going to help.”

Asked to describe the state of the state, Wentworth offered a dour description of Lansing: “I don’t think it can get any worse, from a political sense,” he said. 

Whitmer “has an opportunity here, with the majority of the state watching, to set an example of true leadership and cooperation and show she has the fortitude and the level-headedness and the wisdom to actually lock arms with the Legislature and work together,” he said. 

‘Leaders eat last’

Wentworth, 38, is from Farwell, a small mid-Michigan village in Clare County with an estimated population of less than 1,000 residents where he lives with his wife and three daughters. 

The third-term Republican joined the U.S. Army out of high school because, he said, he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps to become a police officer but was not yet old enough to serve in Michigan. 

So he trained as a military police officer instead, a path that would also pay for his college education, which his website says includes a master’s degree in administration leadership from Central Michigan University

Wentworth served for five years, including stints in South Korea, Maryland, Kansas and Missouri, and then worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Pinellas County, Florida

He eventually left law enforcement and, after moving back to Michigan, joined the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency to work as a regional coordinator, a job he said piqued his interest in politics. 

Asked to describe his leadership style, Wentworth pointed to a plaque his fellow soldiers gave to him when he left the Army: “Always putting soldiers first,” he said. 

He noted another personal mantra as well: “Leaders eat last.”

“I don’t necessarily want a career in politics… so it’s easy for me to put other people first and work towards other people’s goals, because that’s what I want to do,” Wentworth said, describing a desire to help colleagues pursue their own priorities in Lansing. 

In one of his first moves as speaker elect, Wentworth hired three recent colleagues to key roles on his leadership team: Former state Reps. Shane Hernandez of Port Huron as his director of strategy, Jim Lower of Greenville as a strategic adviser and Lynn Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township as his press secretary. 

Hernandez jokingly called the trio “the congressional losers caucus,” referencing failed U.S. House campaigns by each in 2020. But colleagues say the hires reflect Wentworth’s leadership style: He is comfortable delegating and trusts those around him.

“I think one of Jason’s strengths is that he wants to get everyone involved,” said Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt. 

“He wants to hear from the experts, and he wants to hear from representatives in their relevant knowledge and experience, and then he’ll sort of put that in a pot and help that inform his decision-making going forward,” Filler continued. “I view listening and internalizing other people’s expertise as a strength, and so I think that will be helpful moving forward.”

Wentworth made a name for himself during his second term in 2019, when he chaired a committee that helped develop bipartisan legislation to reform the auto insurance system in an attempt to drive down rates that had routinely ranked amongst the highest in the nation.

That was “something that no one person, no legislature, no lobby corps, was able to do for more than 40 years,” state Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, said in a floor speech officially nominating Wentworth to the Speaker role. “He did this by bringing everyone to the table, by listening, learning and leading us all to historic reforms.”

He worked closely on the auto insurance reform law with Rep. Donna Lasinski, a Scio Township Democrat now serving as House minority leader. 

She has called Wentworth a “man of integrity and honor” but urged him to sanction 18 Republican legislators who advocated for what she called a “subversion of our democracy” by joining lawsuits or letters challenging Michigan’s presidential election.

“After a year of strife, division and partisan polarization, it is incumbent on all of us to show the rest of the nation what can be accomplished through meaningful bipartisanship, open communication, transparency and compromise,” Lasinski said in a recent floor speech. 

 Restoring trust in government, elections

Wentworth has not sanctioned fellow Republicans and, on Tuesday, declined to tell Bridge if he believes the 2020 election was “rigged,” as former President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed without any evidence that stood up in court.

Wentworth did say that restoring trust in government will be a top priority in the new term. The House will pursue “election integrity reform” and ethics reforms, including a recently proposed conflict of interest policy that would prevent lawmakers from voting on bills that would benefit themselves or family members.

Wentworth also wants to fight to restore a balance of power that he contended Whitmer has effectively bypassed with COVID-19 orders.  

Wentworth suggested Republicans had already been developing their own plan to spend federal relief dollars when the governor rolled out her own last week. 

“She’s going to continue to operate that way until I think we have some opportunity to leverage and force some conversation, force her to the table,” he said. 

Whitmer contends that science continues to drive her decisions on COVID-19 and has cited falling case counts as evidence that her recent indoor dining ban “worked.” Whitmer has not negotiated with GOP leaders on most pandemic policies but notes she regularly invites them to regular meetings, something “most governors don’t do.”

Shirkey, the Senate Republican leader from Clarklake, has also called on Whitmer to relax COVID-19 business restrictions. He unveiled a list of Senate GOP priorities on Tuesday vowing to focus on both “the lives and livelihoods” of Michigan families.

In an outline, Senate Republicans said they are also committed to “economic freedom” and getting students “back on track” after months of remote learning in some districts. And, after a tumultuous election cycle that culminated with violence at the U.S. Capitol, Senate Republicans said they are committed to “ensuring confidence in elections.”

It’s not yet clear what shape those election reforms may take. Shirkey has publicly rejected conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines used in dozens of Michigan counties but has expressed legitimate concerns with ballot security and oversight.  

The GOP leader has also said he’s open to allowing clerks to count absentee ballots before Election Day, so long as they do not report those totals early, which could help eliminate reporting gaps that Trump supporters erroneously cited as evidence of fraud.

Shirkey and Chatfield, the former speaker who was term limited out of office, recognized Biden’s victory in a series of statements following certification by the Board of State Canvassers in late November.  

And for that, “they were called RINOs all over social media, which is laughable,” said John Sellek, a consultant with Harbor Strategic in Lansing who worked for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s campaign in 2018. 

Many Trump supporters still believe the election was stolen, however, so Shirkey and Wentworth must “try to manage the expectations and the emotions and the frustrations” of those voters by vowing a thorough review of election security, Sellek said. 

The relationship between the GOP leaders and Whitmer is likely to get even “rockier” because conservative lawmakers are under enormous pressure to fight Whitmer COVID restrictions on behalf of small businesses, Sellek said.

“This new speaker has been pretty aggressive right out of the box verbally confronting her on her COVID rulings,” Sellek said of Wentworth, who began the year with dual press releases criticizing Whitmer for vetoing money to help businesses pay unemployment benefits. 

“He’s indicated more than once that he’s going to be willing to publicly confront the governor, and that’s indicative of where his support is in his caucus.”

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