GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Democratic gubernatorial candidates met Wednesday evening at WOOD TV8’s Grand Rapids studio to talk about the issues Michigan faces as it prepares to choose a new governor.
Businessman Shri Thanedar, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, opened the one-hour debate with the story of his life as an immigrant, student and entrepreneur in Michigan.
“Michigan gave me many breaks so I can achieve my American dream,” he said. “I’m running to be the next governor so I can help Michiganders achieve their American dream.”
He said he wanted to tackle health care and education issues.
Former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer said she’s running to transform Michigan back into the state she remembers growing up in.
“Right now, our roads are a disaster, our schools are trailing the rest of the nation. There are too few of us with the skills we need to get into a good-paying job and too many of us who worry about the quality of the water coming out of the tap,” she said. “I’m ready to work with everyone who wants to solve these problems and I’ll take on anyone who stands in our way.”
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed began by quoting the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, referencing his father’s move to the U.S. decades ago and saying our democracy is in “crisis.”
“We’ve got to stand up for a politics that dignifies all of us. It is about standing up because we believe in who we are as a society,” he said.
He cited his experience as the former executive director of the Detroit Health Department, helping kids and fighting corporations, and said he often dealt with inaccessible politicians.
Immigration policy has been at the center of the national conversation in recent weeks, specifically the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border (a policy that was halted by President Donald Trump Wednesday). 24 Hour News 8 political reporter Rick Albin, who moderated the debate, asked the candidates about state-level immigration policies, specifically whether they supported sanctuary cities — which none of the candidates addressed — or similar measures.
Thanedar called the situation at the southern border “inhumane” and “un-American” and said no good would come of it.
“I came to this country with dreams, wanting to achieve my American dream … and one of the reasons we are such a great country is because of how welcoming we are to immigrants,” he said.
He said he would support an immigrant-friendly policy, noting he encourages legal immigration.
Whitmer called the scenes from the southern border “heartbreaking” and “gut-wrenching.” She said it’s “the worst of what we’ve seen come out of the Trump administration.”
“While immigration is federal policy, a governor has an important role,” she said. “There are a lot of different levers of power in the executive office, but the most important in times likes these is the bully pulpit.”
She said as governor, she would fight back by pulling the state’s National Guard members from the border and suing the federal government on behalf of separated children.
El-Sayed agreed the governor should pull Michigan troops from the border and added he would work with the Department of Health and Human Services to reunite separated children with their families.
He went further by saying that if elected, his administration would not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce a “broken” and “heartless” federal immigration system.
FUNDING THE ROADS
The topic of conversation then turned to Michigan’s notoriously poor roads, specifically how much money it will take to fund repairs and where that cash should come from.
Whitmer said the failure to fix the roads was the result of a failure of leadership. She said she would create a Rebuild Michigan Infrastructure Bank, which would ensure the roads are properly funded and support building roads smarter with better materials. She also noted she’d implement broad infrastructure upgrades, including water, internet and electrical, during road repair.
El-Sayed agreed the state is “fundamentally failing to invest.” He has also proposed an infrastructure bank, his called the Pure Michigan Infrastructure Bank, that would focus on thoughtful investments over a longer period of time to bypass politics. He also noted the issue is about broad infrastructure investment, including removing lead pipes for clean water and upgrading public school facilities, and investing in renewable energy.
Thanedar said his car has broken down twice as he attempted to get to debates, including Wednesday, when he had to borrow his wife’s car to get to Grand Rapids. He said he was proposing a $30 billion, 30-year municipal statewide bond to pay for infrastructure.
“We need to put (in) about $4 billion, taking care of the lead pipes, we need to take care of the bridges that are falling apart, we need to have mass transportation,” he said.
NO-FAULT AUTO INSURANCE
Asked about lowering Michigan’s exorbitant no-fault automotive insurance rates — which everyone seems to agree is necessary but no one can agree how to do — El-Sayed blamed the problem on special interests including insurance companies, trial lawyers and hospitals.
He touted his “Reverse the Rates” plan, which he said would include the creation of a “Truth in Insurance Commission” to hold insurance companies accountable, make rates more fair by preventing companies for charging people based upon socioeconomic factors, and institute universal, single-payer health care so auto insurance doesn’t have to act as health insurance.
Thanedar agreed insurance companies shouldn’t be able to use non-driving factors in setting rates. He also said there should be more transparency at the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association to keep rate increases under control.
Whitmer promised that if elected, she would sign legislation tackling the issue in her first 100 days in office. She said insurance companies must be forced to pay on time, that the state must create a fraud authority to crack down on abuse that can contribute to high costs, that there should be more transparency in the Michigan Catastrophic Claims fund and, like her opponents, that insurance companies shouldn’t be allowed to set rates based on socioeconomic factors.
In one of his two rebuttals allowed by the debate rules, El-Sayed said special interests have paid politicians to keep solutions from moving forward. He promised that he’s not taking corporate money.
>>App users: Watch the full debate
With the focus of the debate shifting to schools, the first issue up was funding and scholastic outcomes.
Thanedar said he would start by making pre-kindergarten education universal and added the state must invest in K-12 education and pay teachers well.
“The money has to be there. We need to put more money into the at-risk schools,” he said. “Funding is essential. I want to be the best education governor Michigan ever had.”
Whitmer said the philosophy in Lansing needs to change.
“We have seen our leaders in Lansing take money out of the school aid fund to backfill holes in the general fund. As governor, I would put a stop to that,” she said. “That would infuse immediately $750 million into our children’s education every single year.”
She also referenced early childhood education, said she would work to triple the number of literacy coaches, and urged more career navigators for high schoolers.
El-Sayed said “education is one of the most important things that we do for our kids.”
“We don’t fund equitably,” he said. “We’ve got low-income school districts that get far less than higher-income school districts. We’ve got to level the playing field.”
He also said we should invest in school infrastructure, universal pre-K, teacher salaries and teacher access. He said higher education should be debt-free for low-income families.
He also spoke against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, saying “she has created a system where for-profit schools can take advantage of our public schools, and it’s wrong.”
Whitmer urged stronger gun control measures to stop mass shootings at schools: waiting periods, background checks, keeping guns out of the hands of people with histories of domestic violence and bans on bump stocks — the device used in the mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas — and assault weapons.
“I am so tired, tired, of people who want to go off to their partisan corners and just shoot arrows at one another,” she said. “We have to solve this — for my kids and every kid in this state, for the teachers in our school buildings and the parents who want to drop their kids off and know that they’re going to come home safe.”
El-Sayed said it’s time for adults to stand with young people who have spoken out about gun reform in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17. Like Whitmer, he said assault weapons should be banned, urged tighter background checks, said people with domestic violence histories should be prohibited from having guns, and said law enforcement should be empowered to take guns from dangerous people. He also said specifically that the problem is not about mental illness because most people with mental illnesses are not violent.
“This is about gun reform,” he said.
Thanedar said he wants to ensure that there should be absolutely no guns in schools, and that includes in teachers’ hands.
“Teachers are there to teach, not to protect,” he said.
He said increased funding would facilitate adding security infrastructure.
Asked about how the national political scene will affect the Michigan election, El-Sayed promised he would not and has not taken any corporate money and that his campaign is about bringing people together to talk about real issues. He said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign is proof that attention to campaign transparency and focus on issues can work.
Thanedar said he’s the only gubernatorial candidate who voted for Sanders, who won the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, and that he has not accepted money from corporate PACs.
“In Lansing, we have a pay-for-play culture,” he said. “Politicians need a lot of money to run their election campaigns. They get that money from lobbyists and they get that money from corporations and special interests, and basically corporations get a payback when they get elected. I will clean up Lansing and stop that pay-for-play culture.”
Whitmer said that she’s focused on solutions, not party politics. She cited the state Medicaid expansion that she worked on alongside Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. She said people she has talked to during her campaign are scared that Republicans at the federal and state level will limit their health care, and she said she’ll fight to keep that from happening.
UNIVERSAL AND SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE
Thanedar said health care is a fundamental human right rather than a privilege and that he supports federal Medicare expansion and single-payer health care.
“If you look at the trillions of dollars that we spend on health care, 20 percent of that money is really taken up by the insurance companies,” he said. “And under the single-payer, it would actually be cheaper to cover people because as a single payer, we’ll be able to negotiate better pricing. Prescription medicine costs in America are the highest in the world.”
Whitmer said she was the only person in the debate who has “delivered” on providing health care to more people, again citing the Medicaid expansion, though she noted there’s more work to be done. She said she and her opponents within the Democratic Party agree on many things including expanding care and lowering prescription costs, but what sets her apart is that she’s the only one who knows how to get things done.
El-Sayed said that as director of the Detroit Health Department, he has experience in getting people health care. He said his “Michicare” proposal would cut 10 percent in health care costs immediately by doing away with co-pays, deductibles, premiums and differences in in- and out-of-network pricing. He said he would fund the plan through a progressive income tax and a corporate gross receipts tax over $2 million.
Voters will decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana use in Michigan. All three candidates said they supported the measure.
Whitmer added she supported legalizing medical marijuana and blamed Republican attorneys general who fought that after voters approved it. She went on to say it’s important to keep marijuana out of kids’ hands and expunge the criminal records of people jailed for marijuana possession.
El-Sayed said he supports the measure because of the connected civil rights issue: He said African-American people are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession even through they’re not more likely to actually have it. He said that has led to overflowing jails and negatively affected communities. He added the tax revenue legal marijuana would bring in could be used to fund schools and roads.
Thanedar said that as governor, he would pardon and expunge the records of nonviolent offenders imprisoned for marijuana use.
Also on the ballot is a proposal to create an independent commission to draw legislative district lines. Again, all three candidates supported the measure.
“We can use math to make sure that you don’t have politicians choosing their voters, but rather voters choosing their politicians,” El-Sayed said.
He went on to say that something needs to get done about term limits and that there should be more transparency in government and campaign finances.
Thanedar said both parties had gerrymandered, but that Republicans had gone too far. He said any attack on democracy, including policies that make voting more difficult, should be stopped.
Whitmer praised the group that gathered the signatures to get the issue on the ballot. She said gerrymandering means that 27 out of 38 state Senate seats are decided in a Republican primary.
“That means your vote and my vote does not count as much as other people in our state’s vote does,” she said, adding that taking the decision away from the Legislature is “the right thing to do.”
She also advocated making it easier to vote and broader transparency rules for the government, including the executive branch.
FLINT WATER CRISIS
Thanedar said the crisis of lead-tainted water in Flint, which continues as a crisis of confidence, was an “example of what’s wrong with our current political system.”
“It all starts with unfair and unequal distribution of revenues to cities,” he said. “And when cities failed, Gov. Snyder put emergency managers on these cities.”
He blamed the emergency manager in Flint for trying to cut costs by not paying to correctly treat the water. Inadequate treatment is what caused lead to leach from pipes into the drinking water.
Whitmer said leaders in Lansing failed Flint by eliminating local control through the emergency manager law, which she said has primarily affected communities of color. She said the state owes it to the children of Flint to provide them with the lifelong resources they’ll need as a result of the lead exposure. She pointed out that she has put forth a plan to eliminate lead pipes across the state.
“We are going to clean up the drinking water in this state,” she said.
El-Sayed said he has a plan to provide everyone in the state with a basic standard of clean water and added he’s the only candidate with experience fighting lead exposure, which he did in Detroit. He agreed the state should support kids who were exposed and fix infrastructure problems.
PROTECTING OUR NATURAL RESOURCES
People in Michigan are also eyeing other potential threats to water, including the emerging contaminant PFAS, which has been found in West Michigan, and Enbridge’s Line 5 twin oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. All three candidates said Line 5 should be shut down and also opposed state rules that allow Nestle Waters North America to bottle groundwater for a minimal cost.
Whitmer said the state is defined by its fresh water sources and that leaders have failed to protect it. If elected, she said, she would create a Department of the Great Lakes and Fresh Water. She said other states should learn from Michigan when it comes to water stewardship.
El-Sayed said he would stand up to corporations that take advantage of Michigan’s resources.
“We have all the departments that we need in state government to handle this,” he argued. “Here’s the problem: State government has been bought off by corporations. There are bills currently being proposed that would take the right of the state Department of Environmental Quality, who is supposed to regulate water and air for us, that it would allow a group of corporate CEOs to make decisions about whether emissions of very harmful chemicals could be allowed.”
Thanedar pointed out he vowed not to take money from the fossil fuel industry. Citing his chemistry experience, he said corporations need to be held accountable for cleanup of contamination.
THE OPIOID CRISIS
The final question of the debate was about what the state can do to fight the opioid crisis, which is leading to more and more deadly overdoses across the nation, including in Michigan.
El-Sayed said the mental health care system has been devastated to the point that it can’t handle the opioid crisis and that we have to rebuild that infrastructure. He said that more people, specifically family members and friends of people at risk of overdosing, should be equipped with Narcan, which administers the overdose reversal drug naloxone. He said prescription guidelines should be strengthened and pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for irresponsible marketing.
Thanedar also urged holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, closing down pill mills and expanding access to care.
“This is not a law enforcement issue, this is a health care issue,” he said. “We need to deal with the addiction issues with compassion. Locking them (users) up is not a solution.”
Whitmer said her plan to combat the crisis starts with declaring a state of emergency so the state can access federal resources.
“Addiction is not a moral failing, addiction is a disease,” she said, adding the state must give users the resources and support they need to break the drug’s hold.
She agreed more money needs to be devoted to mental health care, blaming former Gov. John Engler, a Republican, for the system’s breakdown. She also said a state law that protects big companies from being held accountable for harming people, which she blamed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette for writing, needs to be thrown out.
“I look a little different and I speak a little different,” Thanedar said, going first in closing statements to wrap up the debate. “But imagine four years from now at my State of the State address, and I tell that we have taken our education to the top 10, we have created hundreds of thousands of skilled labor force (jobs), we have shut down Enbridge Line 5, Nestle’s not stealing our water anymore, imagine if we fix our roads and imagine we took care of our health care and we have more people covered under that. Will it matter where I was born or will it matter how I tell you that and what accent I tell you that? I need your help to change Michigan. I want to be the change agent, and I need your vote on Aug. 7.”
Whitmer said she’s compelled to run for governor to solve problems and that she has no patience for playing politics rather than reaching solutions.
“Michiganders deserve a governor who works just as hard as we do, a governor with a plan who knows how to get things done. We must address these issues so we can make this the place that our kids stay, that our families can thrive in and that others come to for opportunity again,” she said. “Please vote for me on Aug. 7 and let’s get it done.”
El-Sayed said he wants to be governor to improve the lives of children, referencing his baby daughter and a 3-year-old boy from an at-risk home he met while working in Detroit.
“We deserve a Michigan where both of those kids have the best access to the most dignified life they deserve, and we don’t have that right now,” he said. “It means providing everybody health care, standing up to make sure public school stays public, (and) breaking the corporate chokehold on our politics. We can get it done together.”
>>App users: Photos from the debate
AFTER THE DEBATE
Thanedar said after the debate that he felt voters now know that his focus is on universal early childhood education. He explained to 24 Hour News 8 that under his plan, part of the funding to improve schools will come from taxes on recreational marijuana, should it be approved.
“Recreational marijuana will generate about $125 million,” Thanedar said.
“I am not so much about speaking and grandstanding and demonizing the other side. I’m a problem solver and Michigan has a lot of problems,” he added.
Throughout the debate, El-Sayed often talked about money, reiterating a few times that he believes campaigns backed by corporate dollars are a problem.
“I think we were able to articulate the clear difference between this candidacy and other campaigns,” he told 24 Hour News 8 after the debate.
His background isn’t rooted in politics and he sees that as an advantage.
“People have been seeing a lot of ‘Build a Better Michigan’ advertisements and I’ll just tell you they’re not from me,” El-Sayed said.
Some of those advertisements are promoting Whitmer.
“I know I’m running the strongest, real grassroots campaign out of any candidate,” Whitmer said when asked about El-Sayed’s comments.
Whitmer said that her background as a prosecutor, politician and lifetime Michigan resident makes her a better choice than a nontraditional candidate.
“We’ve experimented with people who walk in off from different professions and (they’re) smart people, but we don’t have time to waste,” Whitmer said in an interview after the debate.
“I’m going to win this race,” she added.
—24 Hour News 8’s Marvis Herring
VOTERS’ CONCERN: THE GENERAL ELECTION
In an effort to get an idea of how Democrats responded to the debate, 24 Hour News 8 watched the candidates face off with a group of Democrat activists.
Four of the five members of the group had a favorite candidate before the debate started and they favored the same candidate when it concluded. The lone undecided voter in the group said his status was also unchanged. The candidates, group members felt, seemed to agree on many key issues.
They said their biggest concern is selecting a candidate who can beat the Republican candidate in the Nov. 6 general election.
“There are just some things that I’m still unsure about, specifically who’s going to win in November?” Devin Rittenhouse, the undecided member of the group, said after the debate. “The party is pretty fragmented right now and I want to know who’s going to do the best job to bring everyone together.”
When asked if anyone in the group could be swayed to vote for Republican, the answer was a resounding “no.”
All of the group members said they were optimistic about the November election for the Democrats, agreeing that concerns about Trump have energized the Democratic base.
—24 Hour News 8’s Leon Hendrix