Tudor Dixon and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer answer reporters' questions after the gubernatorial debate Thursday evening in Grand Rapids, Mich. Lila Turner/Daily. Buy this photo.

Incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon faced off in the first of two debates in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thursday evening. The debate was hosted in the WOOD-TV studio and moderated by political reporter Rick Albin

Whitmer’s campaign announced on Aug. 24 that she had accepted invitations from WOOD-TV for their Oct. 13 debate and WXYZ, WXMI and WSYM for their Oct. 25 debate. Later that day, Dixon said she believed the candidates should have debated before absentee ballots were available to Michigan voters. 

Whitmer opened by emphasizing the importance of bipartisan collaboration and placing democracy and civil discourse above political differences.  

“I grew up in a household that was bipartisan, and we had very different perspectives, but we shared values,” Whitmer said. “I still believe there is more that unites us than divides us. I believe in our democracy. I believe in decency and that’s what I want to focus on tonight and every minute I’m governor of this great state. Let’s work together and build a better future for our kids.”

In Dixon’s opening remarks, she highlighted her experience as a mother of school-age children and her time working at a steel foundry, in addition to criticizing Whitmer’s policies over the past four years. 

“I’m running for governor because, quite frankly, Gretchen Whitmer has let us down,” Dixon said. “I’m sure you remember the promises that this governor made four years ago right here on this stage. She’s going to try to attack me tonight to distract from her record of broken promises, but I’m going to focus on the future. I’m going to talk about how to make Michigan freer and more prosperous.”

The first question of the night, written by an Allendale, Mich. resident, asked the candidates to clarify their positions on abortion and describe what limitations or exceptions they would support. 

Whitmer said the fall of Roe v. Wade undid years of progress for reproductive rights and highlighted her May lawsuit which is currently blocking the enforcement of a 1931 abortion ban

“When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, it took away rights that we had for 49 years,” Whitmer said. “Michigan could revert to a 1931 law that makes (abortion) a felony, no exceptions for rape or incest, criminalizing doctors and nurses. The only reason that law is not in effect right now is because of my lawsuit stopping that. When Roe fell, Mrs. Dixon celebrated that. She said it didn’t even go far enough.”

Whitmer said she supports Michigan’s abortion policy as is, in which abortion is a protected right up until the point of fetal viability. 

Dixon said she remains anti-abortion, with exceptions only for when the life of the pregnant person is at risk, but recognizes that the upcoming ballot initiative and Michigan courts will determine the legality of abortion in the state, regardless of her personal beliefs. 

“I am pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother,” Dixon said. “But I understand that this is going to be decided by the people of the state of Michigan, or by a judge.”

The candidates also discussed Proposal 3, a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that would enshrine the right to abortion, contraception and reproductive care in the state’s constitution. 

Albin asked Whitmer and Dixon whether they would accept the results of the ballot initiative regardless of its alignment with their personal beliefs, to which both candidates pledged they would. Whitmer criticized Dixon for this promise, pointing to her support for false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and arguing that this speaks to her ability to serve as governor.

“Saying she will respect the will of the people when she has not even embraced the outcome of the last election or pledged to embrace the outcome of a future election tells me we cannot trust what she’s saying,” Whitmer said. “These are fundamental rights. We cannot make any assumption that a Dixon administration would fight to protect women’s rights, women’s access to health care and families who are trying to grow their family through IVF.”

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The candidates also discussed their plans for school safety and student mental health. Whitmer emphasized her investments in public education, including increasing mental health services in schools, and highlighted the policies she supports to prevent school shootings, including red flag laws and safe storage

“As a mom, I’m furious and angry that in this country, and only in this country, the number one killer of children is gun violence,” Whitmer said. “We need to act. I support secure storage. I support background checks. I support red flag laws. My opponent, on the other hand, does not. She’s proposed more guns, less oversight and eliminating gun-free zones.”  

Dixon said she supports arming school safety officers and increasing physical protections for schools to prevent school shootings.

“(Whitmer) wants to make sure she takes away any protection you can have,” Dixon said. “She wouldn’t allow protection even inside of the school, where we know that’s the best case scenario if we have someone that can shoot down a shooter and shoot down a threat.”

Both candidates have centered their campaigns on public education, with Whitmer promising to make higher education more affordable and reduce disparities in the quality of education across the state. Dixon has vowed to make parents more involved in their children’s education, specifically promising to limit education on race, gender and sexuality in schools and support school vouchers, which subsidize private and religious education. 

Dixon discussed the school shutdowns since the start of COVID-19 and attacked Whitmer for not creating a tutoring program for Michigan students coming out of the height of the pandemic. 

“Michigan is one of the only states where the governor didn’t immediately implement a tutoring plan for our students,” Dixon said. “We need to get our kids back to reading and back to the basics … We want the parents involved in a child’s education.”

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In May, Whitmer proposed a $280 million investment in tutoring. Michigan did not use any of its COVID-19 relief funding toward tutoring, unlike Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana and 10 other states. 

Whitmer referenced her own experience as a public school student and her work across the political spectrum while in office to invest in public education. Whitmer pointed out that Dixon’s campaign is endorsed by the DeVos family, highlighting Betsy DeVos’s Let MI Kids Learn initiative, which would use tax credits and corporate donations to help fund private school and homeschool education. 

“Betsy DeVos’s voucher plan might help Betsy Devos, and it might help Tudor Dixon, too, because her kids go to private school,” Whitmer said. “I don’t have a problem with kids going to private schools. That’s her choice. But the fact of the matter is that most kids don’t have those options. And that’s why we’ve got to improve the education system across the state of Michigan so that every child has a great education. A governor’s job isn’t just to take care of our own kids, it’s to take care of all of our kids.”

DeVos helped launch the Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative in February. The proposal missed the June 1 filing deadline and will not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. 

Dixon received at least $75,000 from the DeVos family during the Republican primary. Dixon’s campaign raised just over $2.3 million in gross contributions, while Whitmer’s has raised over $31.6 million

“The money that we’ve received so far from the federal government could have been used to harden our schools over the summer, but nothing happened,” Dixon said. “We really need to take that money and focus on how we keep our students, our kids safe inside of those buildings.”

In response, Whitmer criticized Dixon’s response to last November’s shooting at Oxford High School and said Dixon’s campaign promises on the matter represent a danger to Michigan children. 

“​​The same month as the Oxford school shooting, where four children were murdered, eight were injured and the whole community was terrorized, Tudor Dixon posted on her social media a picture of her shooting a gun with a caption that said, ‘Gun control means using both hands’,” Whitmer said. “She is too dangerous and too out of touch to be trusted with protecting our kids.”

Albin also asked the candidates about their plans to reform policing and the criminal justice system. Whitmer said she supports increasing training and support for law enforcement officers to address police misconduct. 

“​​There is more work to do, there is training,” Whitmer said. “We ask too much of our law enforcement officers. We need to support them with mental health experts.”

Dixon referenced Whitmer’s participation in a protest against police brutality in June 2020. 

“People have demonized police officers and made this a career that people don’t feel comfortable in anymore,” Dixon said. “In fact, our own governor marching with the people who are out there saying the police are bad has helped move this narrative along.”

After an hour of debate, Whitmer once again stressed the importance of bipartisan cooperation and promised voters she would place their needs ahead of her political gain in her closing statement. 

“This is a great state and our future is bright,” Whitmer said. “I’ll work hard every single day to make sure of that. I’m asking for your vote in this critical election.”

Dixon concluded the debate by attacking Whitmer’s track record and reaffirming her commitment to placing families first. 

“This governor’s state policies are radical, dangerous and destructive,” Dixon said. “I hope to earn your vote and bring Michigan back to a family-friendly Michigan.” 

Whitmer and Dixon will meet at MotorCity Casino Hotel on Oct. 21 for a pre-election event hosted by the Detroit Economic Club and again on Oct. 25 for their second and final debate at Oakland University. 

After the debate, Dixon told The Michigan Daily she wants to focus on keeping college graduates in the state of Michigan. 

“We want to make sure that we are providing you the jobs that you need (and) that we’re bringing the best businesses here,” Dixon said. “I know that there are a lot of folks that leave the state of Michigan after they graduate from college. So we want to make sure that we’re partnering with our universities and our private sector to ensure that you find the best job possible, and we want you to stay in the state.”

Whitmer told The Daily she has fought for issues that impact college students, including the cost of higher education and reproductive health. 

“Whether it’s our fundamental right to vote, our fundamental right to make our own decisions about our bodies or the ability to get the education without going into boatloads of debt, all of these are things that I have championed,” Whitmer said. “I would be grateful for Wolverine votes in this election.”

Daily News Editor Anna Fifelski and Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at afifelsk@umich.edu and sammrich@umich.edu