Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Virg Bernero and Republican candidate Rick Snyder took the floor last night at the only Michigan gubernatorial debate of the midterm election season, sparring on issues that ranged from higher education funding, to affirmative action, to the state’s budget.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, and Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, moderated the debate, which was hosted by the Center for Michigan and aired live from Detroit Public Television’s Wixom studio.

Snyder began the debate by stressing his new vision for the state, which focuses largely on job creation.

“It is time for the era of innovation,” he said. “I’ve got a 10-point plan that really focuses on jobs.”

During Bernero’s opening statement he elaborated on his current position as mayor of Lansing, adding that if elected, he hopes to recreate the flourishing Michigan that existed when he was younger.

“I’ve got a plan to turn Michigan around,” Bernero said. “The Michigan I grew up in is a Michigan of opportunity. That’s the Michigan I’m fighting for.”

Amid a $1.6 billion state deficit, the two candidates were asked if they would be willing to forgoe their salary should they become governor. Both said they would make significant sacrifices. However, Bernero said he wouldn’t be able to completely omit his salary, as he needs to support his family.

The candidates also discussed tax incentives to encourage business growth, with Bernero supporting the tax incentives, while Snyder expressed his opposition.

“I believe it’s a question of math, not politics,” Bernero said. “If the economic incentives are working, we’re going to use them.”

But Snyder said the state needs a different solution altogether.

“Instead of putting a Band-Aid on something, let’s fix the underlying issue,” Snyder said. “As we get our act together, there should be much fewer needs for incentives in general.”

The candidates debated their plans for improving public education in the state, specifically in regard to providing funding for higher education.

“We’re truly blessed with one of the best (higher education) systems in the world,” Snyder said. “But we need to engage them more in the process.”

Both candidates agreed on the importance of higher education as a key way to help Michigan emerge from the recession.

“Education is economic development,” Bernero said.

Bernero said the state’s higher education focus needs to be on lowering tuition and keeping graduates in the state.

“We want to stop the brain drain,” Bernero said.

If elected, Bernero also said he intends to restore the Michigan Promise Scholarship, which was cut during the state’s budget negotiations for the 2010 fiscal year. The scholarship, which the state funded at a cost of about $100 million, aided about 96,000 college students in Michigan and was awarded based on a test taken in high school. Bernero quickly pointed out that Snyder opposes restoring the program, and Synder didn’t rebut this statement.

But Snyder did agree that Michigan’s commitment to higher education is crucial to the state’s success.

“It’s one of the great assets of our state,” Snyder said.

The moderators also asked the candidates about a variety of social issues like abortion, affirmative action and gay marriage — all of which the two candidates took opposite stances on.

When asked about affirmative action, Bernero said there’s not much the state can do since the Michigan Constitution was amended in 2006 to include an affirmative action ban. Snyder said he supports preferences rather than quotas when it comes to affirmative action.

At the close of the debate, Bernero took the opportunity to highlight his vision for Michigan’s future, which he says emphasizes “Main Street” over “Wall Street.”

“I believe we can and will make Michigan work again,” Bernero said.

In his closing remarks, Snyder said there is a dire need to change politics in the state in order to get Michigan up and running again.

“It is time to re-invent Michigan,” Snyder said. “The way we’re going to do that is with a clear, positive vision. We need to move from being negative to positive.”

Brendan Campbell, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said he was extremely happy with Bernero’s performance during the debate.

“I think the choice is clear for Michigan students and Michiganders across the country that Virg Bernero is the candidate that is most fit to lead the state of Michigan,” Campbell said. “He came out strong tonight.”

Campbell said Bernero’s response on public education really stood out to him. After watching the debate, Campbell said Bernero proved he values students’ best interests much more than his opponent.

“He consistently stresses the importance that higher education plays in Michigan and in the future of Michigan,” Campbell said.

Charles Bogren, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said he was pleased with Snyder’s responses. Bernero’s attacks on Snyder were especially noteworthy, Bogren said.

“I think what stood out the most was that Virg didn’t seem to really talk about anything other than how Rick Snyder is apparently a bad person because he is living the American dream,” Bogren said.

Though each candidate conveyed their plans for higher education well, Bogren said Snyder’s solutions are a better fit for the state.

“Rick’s plan, definitely, especially when coupled with the rest of his economic time, is far better for not only higher education but for the rest of the state,” Bogren said.

One weakness of Snyder’s performance though was his lack of debate skills, Bogren said.

“He isn’t a career politician,” Bogren said. “He hasn’t done millions of debates in his life.”

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