The state of Michigan’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates gathered at Washtenaw County’s Learning Resources Center on Saturday morning while attendees packed the hallway, exceeding the venue’s 250-person capacity. The candidates, William Cobbs, Shri Thanedar, Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed, answered audience questions regarding their economic, environmental and health care policies.
Candidates differed on several points of policy during the debate, but all claimed the state of Michigan has failed its working-class constituents in recent years, often taking aim at Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-led legislature for these failures.
On the economy, most candidates the decried tax cuts and abatements for large corporations during Snyder’s governorship as a failed policy. Cobbs, former vice president for Xerox, supported this sentiment.
“Having worked in a Fortune 500 company and sat in the boardroom… (I know) companies don’t make decisions based on tax incentives, they don’t make decisions based upon how much you’re going to give them in terms of abatements,” he said. “They make decisions based on the overall environment they’re going to operate their business in, and frankly, we’ve neglected our environment.”
All the candidates advocated greater investment in this economic environment, including infrastructure and education. Whitmer, a former Michigan senator, used the example of Detroit’s failed bid to attract the new Amazon headquarters to illustrate this point.
“We need good paying jobs,” she said. “We need the skills to get those good paying jobs. When Amazon chose not to come here, it’s a mandate for us to get our house in order to make sure our education systems are meeting the needs of our kids.”
El-Sayed, former executive director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department, also used Amazon as an example. He made a similar point about education investment, but with an implication that Michigan shouldn’t focus on attracting corporations like Amazon.
“There’s a question a lot of folks have been asking: ‘Why didn’t Amazon come to Detroit?’” El-Sayed said. “I think we’re asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is why we are we not the place, here in Michigan, that is building the Amazons of the future to begin with.”
On education, charter schools were an area of contention. Thanedar, an entrepreneur in the chemical industry, said he would start by closing down “for-profit charter schools,” earning an applause break from the crowd. Cobbs professed he felt indifferent toward the existence of charter schools, but said public tax dollars should not fund them, effectively making them private schools. El-Sayed advocated eliminating “the profit motive” from charter schools.
Whitmer did not mention charter schools in her answer on education, but cited her record on public education during her time as a senator.
“We have lost our way in Michigan,” she said. “I am proud that I took on tough fights with governors of both parties when they wanted to take money out of the school aid fund to shore up holes in the general funds.”
A significant portion of the forum highlighted Michigan’s environmental issues. Every candidate expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of action in stopping construction of Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, including Thanedar.
“As a scientist, I understand the Enbridge Line 5 – with its coating – has worn off, and it’s a ticking time bomb that could create a huge problem, a problem five times more so than Flint, Michigan,” he said.
Audience members felt motivated by the debate. Public Policy graduate student Eitan Paul said he was impressed by El-Sayed and Whitmer.
“I think they would both be excellent governors. I think either of them could win, and I’m energized and excited about what both of them had to say,” he said. “I’ll have to keep thinking and following the campaign before making a final decision.”
Music, Theatre & Dance junior Jacob Sugarman came to the event in support of El-Sayed and spoke highly of this candidate, expressing confidence in the Democratic party in general.
“The big thing too, I think, is the turnout and the enthusiasm, (which) shows there’s sh*t happening in Michigan in 2018,” he said. “The energy’s there, and we have a great field of candidates.”