Novi — President Donald Trump’s leadership style, illegal immigration, government spending, foreign policy and other hot-button issues shaped an impassioned public debate Monday between six candidates seeking to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.
Republicans Lena Epstein, Kerry Bentivolio, Kurt Heise, Klint Kesto, Rocky Raczkowski and Kristine Bonds are all vying to fill an open seat in the Republican-leaning district.
U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, decided in September that he would retire from Congress at the end of 2018, saying he was leaving to spend more time with his family and return to the private sector.
The retirement has stirred wide-open races among Democrats and Republicans. The GOP race so far has the six candidates, but more could enter the contest before the April 24 filing deadline.
Though the candidates fielded questions centered on issues affecting Michigan and Metro Detroit, they also answered inquiries surrounding the country’s commander-in-chief as well as demonstrating their conservative credentials.
Some of the strongest responses concerned Trump’s presence of Twitter. Backed by a massive screen displaying the American flag, all the candidates told the audience they saw the businessman’s tweets as a way of directly communicating his policy plans and positions with the public.
“It’s the only way to get through the fake news,” said Bentivolio of Milford, who won the 11th District seat in 2012 when ex-Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, was thrown off the ballot for having insufficient valid signatures. Trott defeated Bentivolio in the 2014 primary.
The retired reindeer rancher filed for bankruptcy protection less than two months after leaving office in 2015, listing nearly $300,000 in debts and unpaid bills. In December 2014, Bentivolio was asked what he planned to do when he left Congress. He said: “I plan to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: broke and homeless.”
The forum at the Emagine theater, which drew nearly 350 people, gave voters a chance to learn more from the group ahead of the August primary, organizers said. Some questions were submitted; others came from moderators Lauren Burris, chairwoman of the 11th Congressional District Republican Majority Committee; Scott Hagerstrom, Trump’s Michigan campaign director; and Thayrone X, host of “The Edge” on WAAM (AM 1600) radio.
The candidates also discussed their views on illegal immigration.
“I think President Trump is correct in his strategy at this time to put both the wall and DACA on the table at the same time,” said Heise, Plymouth Township supervisor and former state representative who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, referring to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy. “We’re all opposed to illegal immigration.”
Epstein, 36, who co-owns her family’s business Southfield-based Vesco Oil Corp., and co-chaired Trump’s successful Michigan campaign in 2016, also called for a stronger border.
“Right now we essentially have an open border,” she said, adding that with allegations of drug cartels breaching the border, “only God knows what is going across that border.”
A White House meeting is scheduled Tuesday on immigration. GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas is accusing Democrats of holding “hostage” any agreement on a spending bill to prevent a government shutdown until they get assurances that young undocumented immigrants will be shielded from deportation. Democrats are demanding a compromise that would include extending Obama’s DACA protections for 800,000 immigrants, he said.
Trump last year gave Congress until March to find a fix for DACA arrivals. He said he won’t sign legislation protecting hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country illegally as children unless Congress agrees to overhaul the legal immigration system. He told reporters Saturday at Camp David that any deal must include an overhaul of the family-based immigration system as well as an end to the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of a world.
The United States’ role internationally was highlighted. One of the questions involved the country’s contributions to the United Nations’ regular budget, which Trump has pressed to cut.
The UN budget is set to shrink by over $285 million next year, a 5 percent cut that the U.S. government says it negotiated.
The U.S. should “leverage our power and authority to get those power brokers ... to the table with their resources,” said Kesto, a state representative from Commerce Township who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is the first Chaldean-American to win a state House seat. “I think we need to draw in the Germanys, the Britains, the other large countries.”
Between touting how they would draw on their experiences to represent the district, the debaters also shared views on everything from climate change to term limits.
Bonds, the daughter of the late WXYZ-TV news anchor Bill Bonds, repeatedly stressed her desire to tackle the opioid crisis. The Oakland County resident revealed that her son fatally overdosed in 2013.
“I want to be a voice that matters, and I want to be a face that matters relative to the most important and frightening opioid epidemic we’re experiencing as a nation,” said Bonds, who is running on the slogan “Like Father Like Daughter.”
Others addressed the federal government’s reach. Raczkowski of Troy, the former majority floor leader for the Michigan House, asked the crowd to consider how some measures affect the national debt.
“We need to cut spending,” said the decorated Iraq veteran, retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and current president of an automotive and defense logistics firm called Imperium Logistics.
Detroit News wire services contributed to this report.