Some intense scenes played out at the state Capitol in Lansing Thursday. Armed demonstrators stood in the Senate gallery and angry protesters tried to demand access to the House chambers. All of this was driven by tensions over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives Lee Chatfield joined Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about the protests and the political impasse between Whitmer and Republican legislators.
Some protests "un-American"
State Sen. Dayna Polehanki tweeted yesterday that some of her colleagues at the Capitol were wearing bulletproof vests for protection. Outside some of the signs included one that read "Tyrants Get The Noose" and another that depicted Whitmer as Adolph Hitler.
At the time, Chatfield was in the House chamber, which has been closed to the public during the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Americans have the fundamental right to protest and explain their frustrations to governments when they feel that they're being poorly represented," Chatfield said. "Some of the behavior that was reported to me is absolutely unacceptable. I think it's un-American. And I think we need to do all we can to petition our government to explain our frustrations in a responsible way."
At an impasse
The state-of-emergency order that had been in effect was set to expire on April 30. Whitmer had asked the Legislature to approve an extenstion through May 28, but Republicans in the House and Senate refused. Whitmer then issued an extension of the order without approval from the Legislature on Thursday.
"We had been negotiating with the governor leading up to this. We had made several offers and things how we thought we could better partner with her and be a resource to her and be a voice to people. She's rejected all those offers," Chatfield said. "We did not extend the state of emergency because we want to come back in and get back to the regular democratic process and move our state forward together through this crisis.
"The governor declared yesterday she is above the law, she no longer needs the legislature, and she unilaterally extended it."
Many of the recent public exchanges between legislators and Whitmer have focused on who has political authority over the state's COVID-19 response. Whitmer and Republican leaders are at odds over whether the current situation falls under the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 or the Emergency Management Act of 1976.
Asked if he thought that debate was taking away from possible discussions about the best strategies for protecting and helping Michiganders, Chatfield reframed the dispute.
"This is not a question of political control. This is a question of: are we going to listen to people and follow the system of government that our people put in place?" he said. "We want to be a partner with the governor. We can still work together. That's why we're gonna be in Lansing next week. And we hope that she accepts our partnership."
A long view
Chatfield says his concerns extend beyond the current health crisis.
"I think we can prioritize public health, yet still be responsible in how we battle COVID-19," he said.
"My biggest fear would be that a mishandling of this leads to an even larger crisis than what we should have had to deal with."
Editor's note: Some answers have been edited for length. You can hear the full interview at the top of this page.