Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates gathered at WDIV Local 4 in Detroit Thursday night for their final debate before the Aug. 7 primaries. Abdul El-Sayed, former executive director of the Detroit Health Department, entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and Gretchen Whitmer, former minority leader of the Michigan Senate, discussed healthcare, tax reform, marijuana and partisan division, and clashed over corporate involvement in their respective campaigns.
Moderators Devin Scillian and Kimberly Gill launched the debate by asking candidates to provide opening statements. Thanedar, who currently holds an estimated 19 percent of the Democratic vote, emphasized his underprivileged upbringing in India, his climb to success in the United States chemical industry and the fact that he created jobs through his company, Avomeen Analytical Services. El-Sayed, who lags Thanedar at 17 percent, focused on his opposition to corporate favoritism, saying he values real Michiganders.
“It is time to go back to a government for the people and by the people,” El-Sayed said.
Whitmer, the leading candidate with 40 percent of the Democratic vote, said she loves the state of Michigan and is dedicated to improving its infrastructure, insurance systems and education. She also brought up her opposition to leading Republican candidate Bill Schuette.
The moderators acknowledged Michigan has gained half a million jobs and is now at its lowest unemployment rate in 17 years since current Gov. Rick Snyder took office in 2010. Scillian and Gill invited the candidates to share how they will keep those improvements in place.
Thanedar said the key to boosting Michigan’s economy is investing in education, giving people the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce. Specifically, he mentioned his plan to make community college tuition-free.
“I’ve created jobs, and I know what it takes to create jobs,” Thanedar said. “Corporate incentives don’t create jobs, giving skill sets to the people of Michigan will create jobs and I will focus my efforts on bringing technical and skilled education.”
According to El-Sayed, employment has increased in Michigan, but not all jobs are highly skilled or well-paid. He accused corporations of not valuing the average worker, and promised to help small businesses thrive.
“I’m not going to be taking a dime of corporate money, so I’m not going to be in a situation where those same corporations come to my office and ask me to use the Michigan economic development corporation to pass them off these subsidies,” El-Sayed said.
Like Thanedar, Whitmer mentioned the importance of investing in high-quality education, saying she hopes to provide debt-free, two-year college to Michigan residents.
Referencing the fact that the Republican gubernatorial candidates aim to cut taxes, the moderators asked the Democrats how they will convince people that tax increases could benefit Michigan.
El-Sayed suggested the reason people feel overtaxed is because of inefficient government spending of tax dollars. When the Republicans mention tax cuts, El-Sayed added, they mean tax cuts for corporations rather than making business pay their fair share. Whitmer agreed with El-Sayed’s point about government spending, saying the state’s refusal to invest in resources like clean water and high-quality education forces people to spend more money day-to-day.
“We’re paying an education tax every time you hire a tutor because your kid’s teacher is so overwhelmed with kids packed into the classroom,” Whitmer said. “We’re paying a water tax — if you are in Flint, or if you are in one of the 71 communities with lead in your water, or the tens, maybe hundreds of communities with P-Phos in your water, you’re paying a water tax because you’ve got to pay bottled water because government’s not getting the job done.”
Thanedar proposed eliminating the state income tax for any family making under $50,000 annually and said he will tax corporations in order to fund education and infrastructure.
Scillian and Gill mentioned the U.S. Department of Commerce’s recent hearings on whether the country should raise tariffs on vehicles imported from Europe. Noting automakers are under financial stress, the moderators asked the candidates whether they would support the Trump administration’s move to increase auto tariffs.
Criticizing Trump’s hastiness, Whitmer said the administration’s proposal is poorly planned.
“The American worker, the Michigan worker, can compete with anyone on the planet so long as we have a fair playing field,” Whitmer said. “We need Congress to put together a real plan for tariffs and to support them.”
El-Sayed concurred, saying the country needs to work carefully on reforming its legislation.
“Like most of his policies, if Donald Trump is successful, he is going to hurt the average Michigander,” El-Sayed said. “He is right, the average Michigander is hurting, but the solution here is that we need to renegotiate things like TPP and NAFTA with labor at the table.”
Thanedar also expressed his support for Michigan’s automotive industry and said he wants to prioritize the interests of labor unions to ensure he protects Michigan families.
“Unions built Michigan, and I want to make sure that when we have trade negotiations, the unions or working families are at the table,” Thanedar said.
Raising an important theme of the Democratic gubernatorial race, the moderators asked the candidates to outline their plans for reforming healthcare in Michigan.
Thanedar described healthcare as a fundamental human right. He said he would implement a single-payer system modeled after Bernie Sander’s proposal.
“Our seniors must not have to make a choice between buying prescription medicine and putting food on the table,” Thanedar said.
El-Sayed discussed his plans for MichCare, which he claimed would save families and businesses money. Accusing Whitmer of accepting money from big corporations, he said big business is currently maintaining the status quo in healthcare. Whitmer responded, claiming she spearheaded healthcare reform by helping Snyder implement the Affordable Care Act during her time in the Senate. She also highlighted the need for coverage of pre-existing conditions, high-cost prescriptions and women’s health services.
In a rebuttal, El-Sayed said he appreciates Whitmer’s work with Snyder but implied she has cut deals with Blue Cross Blue Shield, an insurance company whose practices he questions.
“Those same insurance companies that Sen. Whitmer talked about, one of them is Blue Cross Blue Shield,” El-Sayed said. “Their CEO made 13 million bucks last year, and right now, I know that they hosted a closed-door fundraiser for Sen. Whitmer.”
Continuing on the topic of healthcare, the moderators raised the issue of Roe v. Wade potentially being overturned by the Supreme Court. If revoked, Scillian and Gill said, states would revert to their pre-1973 laws, under which Michigan would outlaw abortions. The candidates shared their stances on abortion and other facets of women’s health.
Noting that Detroit only has one Planned Parenthood site, El-Sayed said he wants to expand access to women’s health services. As a doctor, El-Sayed said, he sat with female patients debating an abortion and said he respects their right to choose.
“This is always a difficult choice, but it’s always an individual choice,” El-Sayed said.
Whitmer said as a rape survivor, she appreciates the current cultural shift sparked by movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, but claimed Trump’s administration threatens women’s rights.
“I will use every ounce of power in the governor’s office to protect a women’s right to choose,” Whitmer said.
Thanedar agreed, adding he will ensure women’s health procedures are fully covered by insurance.
The candidates commented on their plans for Michigan’s public school system, which has been lagging behind national and international competition. Whitmer said the state must invest in schools by providing literacy coaches, skilled trade training and affordable four-year college or debt-free community college. Thanedar agreed more money needs to go towards Michigan’s schools, emphasizing his commitment to early childhood education.
“Education was the ladder for me to pull myself out of poverty, and that ladder is broken for too many Michiganders,” Thanedar said.
El-Sayed criticized education secretary Betsy DeVos’s focus on for-profit charter schools, saying corporations have a chokehold on education.
Noting each Democratic candidate’s criticisms of President Trump, the moderators asked the candidates to discuss their plans for forging a relationship with the federal government.
Thanedar said he would be tough on current federal administration and push for a fair budget. El-Sayed also expressed strong opposition to Trump’s policies, but said he has the experience needed to collaborate with the administration.
“I know that the people who actually get the work done in the Trump administration, these are civil servants who are not beholden, usually, to what that executive always says,” El-Sayed said. “The fact is, there’s a lot we can do working with like-minded civil servants.”
Whitmer said she knows how to avoid bitterness and work across party lines.
“There aren’t enough conversations around solutions being had,” Whitmer said. “Not one party, not a campaign donor, not anything of the sort decides how I conduct myself. I cross the aisle, I know how to get things done.”
Civility and Democracy
After discussing the Trump administration, the candidates touched on how they hope to restore civility and respect to Michigan’s heavily divided political discourse. Whitmer used the question to address the other gubernatorial candidates for what she perceives as divisive speech.
“I thought it was outrageous today when I saw Bill Schuette sign on to the governor’s call for civility after the way that he’s conducted his campaign, and frankly, colleagues in this Democratic campaign have gone way off the rails as well, telling things that are not true and spinning and throwing the most divisive language out,” Whitmer said. “I’m not doing that.”
Due to his outsider status, Thanedar said he thinks he could help bring Michigan together.
“If Michigan wants something different, Michigan must elect someone different,” Thanedar said. “With my business experience, I will be a unifying factor in Michigan.”
Fixing the Roads
Scillian and Gill prompted the candidates to propose solutions for fixing and funding Michigan’s roads. Whitmer discussed her plan to allocate $3 billion in her first year towards rebuilding roads and removing lead water lines, which contaminate water in over 70 Michigan communities, from underneath roadways.
Thanedar said he would generate new money for infrastructure through a variety of means, including prison sentencing reform, legalizing recreational marijuana and raising taxes.
Reiterating one of his major points, El-Sayed said corporations are preventing the state from investing in its roads. He proposed an infrastructure bank that would focus on bridges, paving, water and renewable energy, independently of corporate influence.
“It’s about more than just fixing the darn roads, it’s about fixing the darn politics,” El-Sayed said.
In acknowledgement of the 5th anniversary of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the candidates debated the implementation of emergency management, which has stirred controversy in Michigan. The state government has historically appointed emergency managers — temporary leaders who take over struggling municipalities — in underprivileged areas, a move some Michiganders believe disenfranchises local governments.
El-Sayed said Detroit Public Schools doubled its debt under emergency management and suggested the state help troubled communities instead by increasing their funding.
“We’ve got to focus on undoing emergency management,” El-Sayed said. “It does not work for real people. Instead, we’ve got to focus on increasing the revenue share that the state shares with local municipalities, empowering them to actually build out and sustain themselves.”
Whitmer said she led the resistance to emergency management during her time in Senate, adding emergency management is often delegated to underprivileged areas and can exacerbate racial disparities.
“In 2014, 50 percent of our African American population in Michigan was under some form of emergency management,” Whitmer said. “This has real racial consequences. There are communities that were set up for failure by underfunding.”
Employing a rebuttal, El-Sayed again accused Whitmer of accepting corporate donations. Whitmer made the same accusation against El-Sayed and described herself as grassroots, reminding El-Sayed of the substantial financial support she receives from women in Michigan.
“Give me a break, Abdul,” Whitmer said. “You have received $170,000 from corporate executives in your campaign. You can’t be half pregnant on this one.”
The Democratic candidates then discussed Michigan’s high incarceration rates and made suggestions for prison reform. Whitmer restated her commitment to funding high-quality education, saying she hopes to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Thanedar said he will save the state money and help former prisoners by reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes, like marijuana use.
“Once the marijuana recreational ballot passes, I will use my power as the governor to expunge records, commute sentences,” Thanedar said. “I believe that the criminals that have committed violent crimes must stay in the prison, but those that have committed non-violent crimes, we should give them a second chance and allow them to provide service to society in an alternate way.”
El-Sayed agreed with the other two candidates on stepping back nonviolent sentencing. He said as governor, he would also focus on ending for-profit jails and empowering citizens transitioning out of prison.
Since all three Democratic candidates have previously expressed support for a bill legalizing recreational marijuana in Michigan, to be placed on the ballot this fall, Scillian and Gill asked the candidates how they would regulate the substance.
Thanedar mentioned his scientific background, saying he would look to research for answers as to how marijuana should be regulated. He suggested implementing laws similar to those used for alcohol.
Agreeing with Thanedar, El-Sayed added he would focus on maximizing the success of upcoming recreational marijuana businesses.
“We’ve got to make sure big corporations don’t come in and capture all the value in the marijuana business,” El-Sayed said. “That means making sure that we’re investing in the ability to incubate and scale small businesses.”
Requesting the candidates keep their responses below 30 seconds, the moderators asked the candidates what problem they would like to fix with the wave of a magic wand.
El-Sayed said he would end poverty. Whitmer agreed, saying the solution to ending poverty is improving education.
“Every one of us deserves a path to a high-pay job,” Whitmer said.
Thanedar, who said he lost his first wife to mental illness, said he would restore mental health funding in Michigan, especially because many crimes are committed by people with mental health issues.
The candidates responded to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding sports betting, offering their thoughts on the topic. All three said they supported sports betting in Michigan, with Thanedar suggesting the state use revenue from betting to improve its roads. El-Sayed said the state must invest in mental health support if it plans to allow sports betting.
“I do think people should be allowed to do the things they do, but let’s be clear about gambling, oftentimes opening the doors for it opens the doors for folks who suffer from gambling addiction,” El-Sayed said.
The candidates concluded the debate by offering their closing statements. Whitmer reiterated her love for the state of Michigan, saying she hopes to restore it to its former status in terms of job opportunities, health and tax structure.
“I want to get some things done right now that are going to make your life better right now, like repealing the retirement tax, cleaning up our drinking water and fixing the damn roads,” Whitmer said.
El-Sayed criticized both his opponents, accusing Thanedar of being a Republican and suggesting Whitmer plays by Republican rules. Again, he emphasized the importance of removing corporate influence from the government.
“We’ve got to stand up for a Michigan that embraces our future,” El-Sayed said. “That means no more corporate money in our politics, no more 527s, no more people trying to buy the election.”
Lastly, Thanedar painted himself as someone who understands and cares about the average Michigander.
“I’m the best candidate to defeat Bill Schuette, because Bill Schuette came from privilege and I came from poverty,” Thanedar said. “Bill Schuette is always worried about his own job; I’m worried about your job.”