GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Republican candidates for governor met at WOOD TV8’s studios Wednesday evening for a debate, with the discussion ranging from medical marijuana to no-fault auto insurance reform to education.
All four candidates who qualified for the ballot were here: Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Sen. Patrick Colbeck, Dr. Jim Hines and Attorney General Bill Schuette. The debate, the first in the gubernatorial race to be televised, was moderated by 24 Hour News 8 Political Reporter Rick Albin.
Introducing himself at the beginning of the debate, Hines presented himself as an outsider who can make a difference.
“I’m running for governor because I want to make a difference in this state. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last seven years but we have a ways to go,” he said.
He said that if elected, he would focus on reforming auto insurance, education and infrastructure.
Colbeck said if he is elected, he will focused on “principled solutions” that would help citizens, not special interests.
“As a state senator, I led the effort to make Michigan a right-to-work state and turned around our veterans services from one of the worst in the nation to No. 2 in the nation,” he said.
Calley boasted the progress Michigan has seen while he’s been Gov. Rick Snyder’s second-in-command. He said hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created, unemployment is down and Michigan natives are coming home because they can go to work.
“We have seen an extraordinary comeback here in Michigan: historic economic gains, real jobs for real people. And I’m working hard to make sure no one gets left behind,” he said.
Schuette noted he has the “huge” endorsement of President Donald Trump, citing their agreement on tax cuts.
“We need more jobs, bigger paychecks and more people in Michigan,” he said. “We need to cut auto insurance rates because you’re paying too much. And our third-grade reading scores are lowest in America. When I’m governor, Michigan’s children will read.”
>>App users: Watch the full debate
The debate started with a question on the legalization of recreational marijuana, which will be on the ballot in November unless the Legislature moves on the issue before then. All four candidates said they opposed legalization.
Hines was worried about the medical side of things, saying there hasn’t been enough research about the effects of marijuana on the body. He added that if the measure passes, the government will have to work out how to make sure people aren’t driving under the influence and that the drug is saying out of the hands of minors.
Colbeck was concerned about how the use of recreational marijuana may impact people’s ability to get a job.
“If we go down this route, I think we’re going to see an increase in our government assistance costs,” he said. “That’s not a road I want to take Michigan down.”
Calley noted he supports the use of medical marijuana, which he said may help fight the opioid epidemic. He then took aim at Schuette, saying he worked to stop its implementation in Michigan after it was approved by voters in a ballot question in 2008.
Schuette said he was concerned with keeping drugs out of the hands of kids. He then turned the question toward cracking down pill and heroin dealers to stop the opioid crisis.
FLINT WATER CRISIS
Asked about the crisis of lead-tainted water in Flint, Colbeck lauded the state’s response, saying it had taken steps to resolve the problem. But he also said that other communities had lead-tainted water and that also needs to be addressed.
Calley said he was on ground in Flint during the crisis. He went on to take aim at Schuette again, saying he had politicized the investigation to launch his gubernatorial campaign, a claim he has made before.
Schuette denied that, saying his investigation is “all about accountability and justice.”
“You’re desperate because you’re behind,” he told Calley. “You’re trying to change the subject.”
Hines said so much focus has been on prosecution that the people of Flint have been forgotten. He added that he thinks the state should not have discontinued its bottled water service in the city.
Segueing into protection of the environment and the Great Lakes, Calley said Michigan is out in front on tackling contamination from PFAS, a likely carcinogen found in many products that’s emerging as a concern. He went on to say “we need to eliminate the risk” that comes with piping oil under the Straits of Mackinac in Enbridge’s embattled Line 5 twin pipelines.
Schuette said Michigan should build a utility tunnel under the Straits to protect the Great Lakes. He added he is opposed water diversion from the lakes.
Hines said there are thousands of toxic sites in the state that aren’t being addressed. He said part of the problem is that Michigan takes trash from elsewhere and said the state’s fee for dumping was too low. He said raising that rate could help pay for cleanup projects. He also said he was concerned about Line 5.
Colbeck said that if elected, he would create a prioritized list of contaminated sites to tackle. He said he has been working with state agencies to address a contamination situation in his district, focusing on protecting people’s health and property values.
School safety has been at the forefront of the national conversation since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. The Michigan Legislature is working on school safety bills created in the wake of that shooting.
Schuette said mental health care reform was necessary; initiatives like his OK2SAY program, which allows kids to report bullying and threats, should be expanded; and trained security officers should be placed in schools.
Hines advocated for local control for each district. He also said there should be more public awareness and vigilance, and law enforcement procedures to prevent possibly dangerous people from hurting others.
Colbeck came out against gun control, saying that people should have the ability to defend themselves.
“I’m here to tell you, you’re never going to know enough information to go off and rule out these scenarios with this top-down control of society,” he said. “What we’re at risk of doing right now is to go off and sacrifice some basic liberties for the sake of some false sense of security.”
Calley also said he supports local control.
“I think we should take a practical approach, first starting with security at our schools. … It’s hardening of the building, but it’s also monitoring the entire campus. It’s failsafe communication with local law enforcement,” he said.
In a related question, candidates were asked about whether Michigan should enact more gun control. All of the candidates opposed that idea, saying they support the Second Amendment and Michigan’s constitutional protections for the right to bear arms.
Hines said he supports universal background checks, but added he thinks gun-free zones should be eliminated.
Colbeck also argued gun-free zones are useless because mass shooters seek out places where they know people won’t be armed.
Calley said the right to keep and bear arms is “non-negotiable.” He said taking away firearms would be a violation of people’s constitutional rights. He said we must do more to remove dangerous people from society.
“We have laws on the books, we just need to enforce the ones that are already there,” he said.
He also took the time to point out that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.
Schuette also pushed his support of the Second Amendment, bringing up his alignment with Trump on that issue and an endorsement from the NRA.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
Asked about their support of Trump, Colbeck touted his grassroots efforts to back the president.
“When President Trump was under attack … I was out there on the capitol steps making sure that he knew that we were supporting him and rallying the base,” he said.
Calley said he supports and voted for Trump. He said despite some divisions in the GOP during the last election, Republicans have come together over shared priorities, including tax cuts.
Schuette repeated that he has been endorsed by Trump. He said he had been invited to the White House to talk about the fight against human trafficking. He said Calley had “deserted” the president before the presidential election.
Hines said he had long supported Trump.
“I like what he’s doing. I like the construction of a wall. I like, of course, the tax reform,” he said. “Trump is our president and I believe placed there by God and we should be praying for him.”
He also lashed out at Schuette and Calley, saying that they had not always supported Trump and calling them hypocritical.
NO-FAULT AUTO INSURANCE
No-fault auto insurance reform has been a thorn in the Legislature’s side for years. Everyone seems to agree something needs to change, but there’s never been agreement on exactly what or how.
Calley said legislative attempts at reform have failed because they’re too big “and the bill dies under its own weight.” He said the Legislature should make smaller changes one at at time. He said there should be more accountability and transparency in the system, advocating for a fraud authority to find and prevent fraud, and refereeing between insurance companies and health care providers.
Schuette agreed auto rates are too high.
“We need to crack down on frivolous lawsuits, crack down on insurance fraud,” he said.
He went on to accuse Democrats of not working to change the system and said they would stick with the status quo.
“Everyone’s going to have to give a little bit, but we can’t have the status quo anymore,” Schuette said.
Hines said that the issue is an example of how career politicians can talk and still not get anything done. He said his status as an outsider would allow him to affect real change.
“We need a fee schedule,” he said. “If you have a chest X-ray just to have a chest X-ray, it’s going to cost $65. If you’re in an auto accident, it’s going to be over $600. It should be the same price. Why that dichotomy?”
Colbeck noted the complexity of auto insurance. He said he believes in cutting costs but also believes in maintaining lifetime benefits.
“I think there’s a way to satisfy both of those requirements,” he said. “It starts with a simple examination of your insurance premium. … Turns out that 58 percent of the costs and 58 percent of those line items that you have on that auto insurance premium are actually driven by state mandates.”
He said he thinks Michigan can reach a cost reduction of between 40 and 60 percent by reworking the Michigan Catastrophic Claims fund. He said he’s the only candidate with a plan to do that.
In the past several years, Michigan has been making strides forward in owning the mobility technology industry. But making sure that moves forward means making sure kids have the education to fill the high-skilled jobs of the future.
“It’s a competition between California and Michigan as to where the computers on wheels — automobiles — will be built, designed, researched and manufactured,” Schuette said. “We need to make sure it’s done in Michigan, that’s why cutting taxes and I’m advocating rolling back the (former Gov. Jennifer) Granholm income tax.”
He said Michigan should be welcoming to free enterprise to draw in mobility technology companies.
Hines said we need to start with the basics. He said Michigan kids are behind in reading, writing and basic math. He said the solution to that was emphasizing education, specifically in reading. He also said that Michigan needs to invest more in its infrastructure, noting our “terrible” roads.
Colbeck also supported educational reform, which he said would start with getting rid of Common Core education standards. He argued there’s too much micromanaging in the classroom and that focus should be on teachers, parents and students.
Calley said Michigan is the international leader in mobility. He said if we want to keep that spot in the long term, we need to make sure that employers can find the workers with the skills they need.
“We’ve got to bring back skilled trades earlier in the process and bring it back in a big way. There is not only one definition of success. Our kids can take all different types of pathways after high school to live a great life,” he said.
Asked about funding for and support for K-12 and higher education, Hines said that the issue isn’t necessarily money. Rather, he said, we should focus on individual support of students.
“We need reading coaches in schools with alternative certification,” he said. “We need a plan. We need to be able to take 3- and 4-year-olds all the way in to K-3 with a continuity and core nation. We need to educate our teachers. We need some sort of teaching program, like phonics.”
Colbeck said universities need to run more efficiently.
“I actually look at the expense side of the ledger,” he said. “A lot of the folks at our universities aren’t doing that to the detriment of our students.”
He said he had proposed a program called the Enhanced Michigan Education Savings Program to supplement education spending. He said it would put 50 percent more funding into the education system each year.
Calley again turned to skilled trade training, saying that not everyone needs to go to a four-year university. He also suggested early college attendance with dual enrollment programs.
Schuette said parents should be the driving force in their children’s education and have choices about where their kids go to school. He pointed out that Michigan has the lowest third-grade reading scores in the country. He said schools should be graded and higher-performing schools should be awarded with grants. He added that private entities should be called upon to help get kids to the schools with the programs they need.
>>App users: Photos from the debate
THE OPIOID CRISIS
The last question of the night was what Michigan could do to combat the opioid epidemic.
Colbeck said there should be no micromanaging of doctors’ treatment of their patients. He said more control should be enacted at pharmacies to find and stop abuse.
Calley said the focus must be on education before opioids are prescribed. He said we can’t simply throw people in jail, but instead help them recover.
Schuette said that as attorney general, he has worked to crack down on “pill mill docs” and heroin dealers.
“You can’t arrest your way out of it, but it’s working together,” he said.
Hines said the emphasis has been on taking opioids away from people, but noted that removing those drugs can push people to turn to heroin. He said doctors should be prepared to wean patients off opioids.
In closing statements, Schuette said he would focus on more jobs and bigger paychecks, cutting taxes, reforming auto insurance and improving third-grade reading scores. He said he’s the only one with the experience, skill, ability, drive and steel to lead Michigan.
“We’re going forward. We’re going to go from good to great,” he said. “I want us to win again. We can win again.”
Calley said the choice before voters was continuing on the comeback path or turning around. He told the stories of some people who were able to prosper in Michigan under the Snyder administration.
“I’m running for governor to continue the comeback,” Calley said.
Colbeck said we need to buck the eight-year cycle of switching between a Democrat to Republican governor. He said he’s the only gubernatorial candidate with energy in his campaign.
“We need to reject politics as usual in this upcoming election,” he said. “I’m the principled solution governor (candidate) and I hope to earn your support in this election.”
Wrapping up the night, Hines questioned his opponents about what they’ve been doing as career politicians. He said he would bring fresh, new ideas to Lansing.
“I’m not a politician. I’m not taking special interests’ money. I’m an outsider. I believe I can get a lot done,” he said.
The primary is Aug. 7 and the general election Nov. 6.
AFTER THE DEBATE
For Hines, a self-proclaimed outsider, the goal of the debate was simple: Establish himself to voters statewide.
“It was just an opportunity for the people of this state to see Jim Hines,” he told 24 Hour News 8 after the debate.
Hines acknowledged that he has some catching up to do if he wants to win the primary. So can he?
“Absolutely. We’re confident that we can,” Hines said. “That path to victory is going to be the people of this state seeing that we want an outsider that connects with us, that will put people first, not politics.”
Colbeck has spent eight years in the Michigan Legislature, but he, too, recognizes there are bigger names on the ballot. Wednesday night was an opportunity to put himself firmly in the conversation.
“I think we did a good job,” Colbeck told 24 Hour News 8. “I think the thing that we’re not getting a full appreciation of is the fact that we still have most of these polls showing that the No. 1 leader is undecided.
“Couple of the issues that I really wished we would’ve talked about are the elimination of state personal income tax and the senior pension tax. My plan to actually go off and fix the roads — but focusing on quality not just throwing more money at it — but we should get some more opportunities,” Colbeck added.
While much of the debate was focused on each candidate’s respective goals, there were some jabs thrown. Calley was the only candidate to use his two rebuttals allowed by the rules and he criticized Schuette in both.
“I think it’s just important that people know the facts. He’s been hiding for so long,” Calley told 24 Hour News 8. “The people of this state deserve to have answers about where we go from here, not platitudes and certainly not dodging town halls and debates like he has been.”
Calley also used the debate to push his role in Michigan’s “comeback” and job growth since Snyder took office.
“The people of the state of Michigan are going to decide whether they want to continue this comeback and bring it to the next level, or if they want to turn backward,” Calley said.
Schuette sent criticism back Calley’s way, but at times was dismissive of the attacks.
“I don’t worry about that. He’s behind, desperately behind,” Schuette told 24 Hour News 8. “It’s all about the future. Because we can’t go back. Because we can’t afford (former state Sen. Gretchen) Whitmer and the Democrats.”
The attorney general also used the debate to frequently mentioned the endorsement he’s garnered from the president.
“He has a partner in Bill Schuette,” he said. “And that’s Donald Trump and Bill Schuette making sure we have more jobs and bigger paychecks for Michigan’s future.”
—24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean
UNDECIDED REPUBLICANS EYE LESSER-KNOWN CANDIDATES
As the debate aired, a group of six undecided Republican voters from Kent County was watching from the WOOD TV8 Media Arts Center at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
Most said they did not have a favorite candidate before the debate began, but by the time it was over, most said the needle had moved closer to a particular candidate.
They said they wanted to see substance, and most said they found it from the lesser-known candidates, Colbeck and Hines.
“Everybody thought it would be between Calley and Schuette at this point in time, but now we get a fresh look at a Colbeck and a Hines with some different ideas,” Todd Hawkins said.
They said the polished delivery of Schuette and Calley lacked authenticity and they felt Colbeck and Hines seemed more sincere.
“I was just turned off by the fact that Calley’s answers just seemed so memorized,” Courtney Egeler of Wyoming said.
They also didn’t like the jabs Calley and Schuette threw at one another.
“Because it was almost as if the other two candidates weren’t even there, like they didn’t exist,” Elizabeth Johnson of Cedar Springs said.
—24 Hour News 8’s Leon Hendrix and 24 Hour News 8 web staff
More than an hour before the debate began, protesters gathered outside WOOD TV8’s studio in Heritage Hill to make their voices heard. They said they were from different organizations but were coming together for a common cause. At least some had been bused in from Detroit.
The protesters, many of whom identified themselves as Democrats, said they have concerns about a Republican governor and wanted to let West Michigan know what they want in a the state’s next leader:
“Making health care affordable for everyone, not just the rich. Make it affordable for the poor and the homeless, everyone,” protester Deangelo Price said.
Another protester was concerned about cuts to Medicaid.
“I think it’s very important that we show up and tell Bill Schuette and our Republican candidates that we do not accept their cuts to Medicaid. We think it’s very important to protect health care for those who are most impoverished,” Tyjuan Thirdgill said.
Others discussed changes they’ve seen to the veteran affairs system.
“I have issues with Bill Schuette,” protester Amanda Leanne Brunzell said. “I have seen personally what has gone one with the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, what he has been involved in, first saying he was for privatizing the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and then going on to tell veterans if they didn’t like it, they could just go.”
—24 Hour News 8’s Zach Horner
RESPONSE FROM DEMOCRATS
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon provided this statement after the debate:
“If Michigan voters want a politician who will bow down to Donald Trump and be a third term of Rick Snyder’s failures — tonight’s Republican debate was the place to look. Instead of helping working families, Bill Schuette and Brian Calley just offered more of the same harmful policies that have been benefiting special interest donors and establishment insiders like themselves for nearly a decade.
“In contrast, Michigan Democrats want to shake up Lansing to work for Michigan’s middle class, finally fix our failing roads and schools, and ensure that our veterans, drinking water, and the health and well-being of entire cities take priority again over the wish lists of big money Republican donors like Betsy DeVos. That’s a better vision to help our working families and exactly why we continue to gain grassroots momentum in every corner of the State.”