If you must retry 2020, start with lockdowns, not the election

When she had absolute power, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer taped off the seed section.

Back in March 2020, when Whitmer ordered 10 million Michiganders to “Stay Home and Stay Safe,” it sounded like a matter of life and death, the desperate times that call for desperate measures.

“Two weeks to stop the spread” seemed broadly reasonable. But as weeks turned to months, and the orders and the extensions kept coming, one wondered when the declared emergency would end.

In two executive orders, numbers 2020-67 and 2020-68, Whitmer claimed the ability to hold Michigan in emergency status until she, Whitmer, determined that the economy had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In Whitmer’s Michigan, emergencies were the health of the state. Absolute power had corrupted, absolutely.

At one point, Whitmer’s team even leaked emails to the media evincing that Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had dared attempt to negotiate with the governor.

Shirkey had not spoken inappropriately, or insulted the governor. He simply tried to negotiate with a co-equal branch of government, as one does in representative government.

Armed with emergency powers, the governor who once touted her ability to work with lawmakers now showed disdain at the thought. Big Gretch was in charge, and that was that.

So in May 2020, Shirkey and the Legislature sued.

As Shirkey wrote in a Detroit News op-ed explaining the lawsuit, “Absent a legal challenge, Whitmer would be left unchecked and could extend the state emergency declaration indefinitely. That is too long for our citizens to wait for a plan to regain their lives and their livelihoods.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, ever a watchdog of government overreach, gave Whitmer a wide berth in the early days of the pandemic. President Joseph G. Lehman cited the unknowns and uncertainties of the time.

“We were inclined to grant the elected officials a lot of leeway in dealing with the pandemic in its earliest days, because there were so many unknowns,” Lehman told CapCon.

“We did not know much about the virus,” Lehman added. “We did not know much about how to slow its spread. We did not really know how dangerous it could be. And so we also assumed, wrongly, that extreme measures and mandates would likely be short lived, and therefore more tolerable.”

But as the extensions kept coming, legal and constitutional concerns came to the fore. Millions of people had their livelihoods decided by one person, without any input from the representatives they elected, Lehman said.

The Mackinac Center filed a lawsuit the same month legislators did, striking at Whitmer’s orders and the laws that granted them.

Both lawsuits succeeded, leaving the governor’s office with a shell of the emergency powers it once wielded.

“Our lawsuit restored the voices of 10 million people to the democratic process,” Lehman said.

Earlier this week, Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services agreed to split a $200,000 settlement to end the Mackinac Center’s lawsuit. Bad government costs us all.

Whitmer’s reign during COVID is an object lesson on the dangers of absolute power. To the extent the 2022 governor’s race should be about the events of 2020, lockdowns are the place to start.

But recent events indicate the 2020 election will be a bigger focus among Republicans. That would be a mistake.

GOP contender Ryan Kelley got a boost in the polls this month, after a pre-dawn FBI raid and arrest at his Allendale home.

Kelley was charged with a paltry four misdemeanors. But from the breathless media coverage, one might have mistaken the Kelley arrest as real news, not the political perp walk it was.

Kelley’s alleged crime? Being in the vicinity of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Three of the misdemeanors refer to Kelley being in a “restricted building or grounds.” Which is to say, the feds found a way to charge Kelley whether or not he had set foot in the Capitol. Kelley has denied it all.

Just this week, Andrew Gillum, a Democrat who lost the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race to Ron DeSantis, was allowed to turn himself in to face 21 federal felony charges.

Four misdemeanors? The FBI will beat the sun to your house. Twenty-one felonies? Turn yourself in at your earliest convenience.

Only politics can explain the difference in treatment.

And only a public that saw Kelley’s arrest as political would support him in increased numbers, as Michigan voters have. But is the perception that he’s been targeted enough to pull him through in August? In November, against a well-funded incumbent? Don’t count on it, especially the latter.

If Kelley gets the nomination, expect the Michigan media to make the 2020 election a major focus. Every minute spent talking Trump, or “stop the steal,” is time not spent talking about the future. Which is bleak, by the way.

There’s the damn roads, which 10 million people view as a problem – and for which the 140 representatives we send to Lansing can find no solution. There’s the shaky future of the Detroit auto industry. There’s the opioid crisis, which killed 2,809 of our neighbors last year.

The media will bait Kelley to stroll down memory lane. And he might feel tempted to, knowing Trump is watching.

“Do you think Trump won?”

“Why were you even in D.C. on Jan. 6?”

“Do you think Trump lost?”

These are irrelevant questions to ask a would-be governor, as governors play no role in Michigan’s electoral college process. They’re a waste of time and a distraction. Which is exactly why the Lansing media will ask them again and again – to waste time and distract.

Even if the election were stolen, from sea to shining sea, there is no recourse now. Rather than talk about the past, better to join efforts to secure Michigan's elections for the future. One such is Senate Bill 1069. Offered by former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, SB 1069 would bar Michigan clerks from taking outside monies to run elections. 

If Kelley can’t pivot from the 2020 election, or Jan. 6, and instead talk about 2023 – when the winner of the governor’s race will take office – he’ll be an also-ran. Howard Wolpe in a red tie.

A word to the wise, to Kelley and his ilk: Stop talking about the 2020 election. Stop talking about Trump. Stop talking about Jan. 6.

Focus on the person who locked Michigan down, and sent the whole of the state’s power down against barbers and restaurant owners who defied her.

Talk about government, not politics, and you’ll be speaking the people’s language.

James David Dickson writes a Sunday column on issues in Michigan government. Write him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.