EAST LANSING – Gov. Jennifer Granholm took the stage here last night to defend her record against Republican challenger Dick DeVos in the first of three televised debates before the Nov. 7 general election.
The race is close, with most recent polls showing Granholm with a slight lead.
So far, campaign rhetoric has largely focused on Michigan’s ailing economy. Last night, the candidates offered viewers different economic visions for the state.
“A governor is responsible for setting the atmosphere for what goes on in this state,” DeVos said before reeling off statistics about the state’s dire economic straits. “That’s why we need leadership who has practical experience, who understands the world of business, understands what it takes to create jobs.”
Granholm said she does understand how to fix Michigan’s economy – and she has a plan to do it.
“We know that we’ve got to up our standards for what we expect of our high school graduates, double the number of college graduates or those who get technical and vocational certifications,” she said. “We know that we have to diversify our economy, and this is part of our economic plan. We are investing more than any other state in the country in diversifying our economy.”
She also accused DeVos of lobbying for what she called unfair trade practices as chief executive of Alticor, the parent company of Amway.
But the questions from the moderators, Detroit News reporter Charlie Cain and public television host Tim Skubick, soon swerved to more obscure topics. Questions ranged from stem cell research to the roles of the candidate’s spouses.
In a question that seemed to make both candidates squirm, Skubick asked DeVos if he thought Granholm was responsible for the death of Ricky Holland, a foster child who was abused and eventually killed at the hands of his caretakers. Skubick also pressed DeVos to say whether Granholm should accept responsibility for the three murders committed by Patrick Selepak, a prisoner whom the state Department of Corrections accidentally paroled.
“There are shades of Willie Horton in this,” said communications and political science Prof. Michael Traugott. He was referring to a 1988 George H.W. Bush presidential campaign ad that tried to tie his opponent, Michael Dukakis, to crimes committed by Horton, a convict who had been let out on furlough while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts.
DeVos stopped short of saying Granholm was directly responsible, but questioned her handling of the cases.
Granholm defended her response. She said her crime credentials were strong, pointing out that she had served as a federal prosecutor and attorney general.
“When Patrick Selepak was released, it was a mistake,” she said. “The Department of Corrections was informed that it was a mistake and I ordered the people responsible to be fired.”
Skubick questioned DeVos on his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Granholm tried to paint that position as extremist.
“I think that’s just far out of the mainstream,” she said. “I think that government should not be in the doctor’s office, or in the confessional or in your bedroom.”
Neither of the candidates strayed far from the talking points they had already laid out in their campaigns.
“One of the worst things that can happen nowadays is to be called a flip-flopper,” Traugott said. “I think that they each stayed pretty consistent with their previous statements, previous positions on these policies.”
Granholm’s answer to one question seemed to catch DeVos off-guard. When asked if she thought DeVos was avoiding any issues to win the election, Granholm brought up DeVos’s refusal to release his tax returns, as many candidates do. Instead, he has put out what he claims is a comprehensive accounting of his finances.
Granholm said that document wasn’t complete.
She pointed to a $170-million investment the DeVos family made in Alterra Corp., a defunct Milwaukee-based nursing home chain that has been connected to allegations of physical and sexual abuse against its patients.
“Obviously, he wouldn’t want us to know about that,” she said. “So my concern is that there are other things in his failure to disclose that we might not know about.”
DeVos played down his role in Alterra.
“My holdings were less that 1 percent of that company,” he said. “It was a tragic, tragic situation to be sure, and it turned out to be a very bad investment as well, so it was a very, very unfortunate set of circumstances.”
“$170 million I think is a big investment even for you,” Granholm said, referring to DeVos’s vast family fortune.
After the debate, DeVos spokesman John Truscott said DeVos’s investment amounted to only .6 percent of the company and consisted mostly of bonds, not common stock.
Granholm spokesman Chris DeWitt refused to discuss the investment last night, saying only that the Granholm campaign and the Michigan Democratic Party will hold a press conference today to talk about DeVos’s Alterra connection.
For all the publicity surrounding the debate, it’s not clear how much of an impact it will have on the race.
Traugott said debates don’t typically have much of an effect. The audience is usually small, and those who do watch often already have their minds made up, he said.
But how the debate is reported in the press can make a difference.
“One thing to look for is how the news media play up this debate tonight and tomorrow,” Traugott said.
Reaction from observers was mixed about which candidate came out on top.
“I think that they each scored a few points, mostly with regards to their own base,” Traugott said. “I don’t think that either one of them did anything to convert large numbers of people to either side.”
Jamie Ruth, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, was much more enthusiastic about his candidate’s performance.
“I was very impressed,” said Ruth, who watched the debate with a group of College Democrats. “The mood afterwards was very celebratory.”
He said Granholm’s words were only one part of her success in last night’s debate.
“It wasn’t just the substance of what she was saying,” he said. “I think she really connected with people staring at their TV boxes tonight.”
College Republicans Chair Rob Scott, though, said he had expected more from the debate.
“I was a little disappointed that so much of the debate focused on kind of trivial issues about the campaign and campaign ads, that it wasn’t more substantive,” he said. “In the future debates I’d like to hear him hone in on what his economic differences are and how he has a different perception of Michigan’s economic condition and how it got there.”
Debates on deck
Where: Grand Rapids
When: 8 p.m.
Tune in: WDIV-TV, channel 4
When: 8 p.m.
Tune in: WXYZ-TV, channel 7