Democrat, GOP governor hopefuls spar in bipartisan debate

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
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Mackinac Island — Republican Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer traded jabs Thursday in a fast-flowing bipartisan gubernatorial debate that featured six top candidates for Michigan governor. 

Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing, blasted Schuette, the attorney general from Midland, for fighting a right-to-literacy lawsuit in court. She also accused him throughout the debate of stating policy positions but not offering plans.

Michigan gubernatorial candidates (from left) Bill Schuette (R), Gretchen Whitmer (D), Pat Colbeck (R), Shri Thanedar (D), Brian Calley (R) and Abdul El-Sayed (D) debate the issues on stage at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island on Thursday, May 31, 2018.

Schuette returned fire by calling Whitmer’s new jobs proposal, which includes a $15-an-hour minimum wage and two years of free college, an “economic collapse plan” reminiscent of the policies of former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The exchanges between the establishment favorites from each party punctuated the 60-minute debate at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference. It included Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland, and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township on the Republican side. Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed rounded out the Democratic field.

Despite a few fireworks, the debate amounted to “the yawner on the island,” said Democratic strategist Howard Edelson. 

Whitmer and Schuette appeared to be testing their general election strategies, acting like presumptive nominees, while other candidates missed opportunities to reshape the race, Edelson said.

Moderators asked all six candidates about their plans to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads.

Calley touted the $1.2 billion road funding law passed in 2015 that is still phasing in, triggering increases in the state's gas tax and driver's registration fees. He said Michiganians will see more construction in the next few years than they have before. But he acknowledged that “generations of politicians failed us” before passage of the 2015 package.

Shri Thanedar (D) and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) debate the issues on stage at the Mackinac Policy Conference

Colbeck made clear he opposes new taxes for road repairs and wants to focus on improving road quality. “If you want to fix the roads for good, get an engineer involved," Colbeck said, alluding to his background as an aerospace engineer.

Schuette called for a review of theMichigan Department of Transportation to ensure people are getting more miles paved for the money they are paying at the gas pump. He also said he wants to repeal the state's prevailing wage law, which he said inflates road construction costs, and free up more budget money for roads without raising taxes.

Calley said he also supports repealing the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers on public projects, but noted that it does not affect road construction projects, which are usually governed by federal wage rules.

When the Democrats were asked the same question, Whitmer said she has a $3 billion plan to "fix the damn roads." She didn't indicate how she would pay for it, but Whitmer has said she would ask voters to approve bonding — borrowing money — if the Legislature does not agree to raise revenue through new taxes or other mechanisms.

Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar indicated he would force Michiganians making $200,000 or more a year and businesses to help "chip in" to fix the roads and implement other plans.

Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed said Michigan's roads have never been worse and suggested “our state is literally crumbling.” A new infrastructure bank would help fuel road investments, El-Sayed said, noting his infrastructure plan also calls for more renewable energy development.

A favorite of the progressive left, El-Sayed said big corporations are “paying off politicians — almost everyone else on this stage — to make sure they keep getting their tax cuts and we don’t have the money to invest.”

“If we’re serious, we’ve got to stop with that. … If you make a lot of money, maybe you should pay just a little bit more,” he said.

El-Sayed and Thanedar both mentioned support for a graduated income tax, which Whitmer supported in the state Legislature. Moving away from the state's flat 4.25 percent tax, which would require a constitutional amendment, could allow for higher rates on wealthy residents and lower rates for the poor.

Thanedar said he wants to exempt residents who earn less than $50,000 from the state income tax but is “the only gubernatorial candidate in the history of the United States who wants to raise taxes on himself.”

The Ann Arbor businessman disclosed his personal assets this week, revealing he made $16 million by selling a majority stake in his chemical testing laboratory in 2016. Thanedar is worth between $25 million and $32 million, making him the richest candidate in the race.

Schuette, who disclosed $13 million in personal assets last week, touted his call to lower the state’s 4.25 percent income tax rate, saying it is one reason he has been endorsed by Republican President Donald Trump, whose name he mentioned several times.

Calley waited until his closing statement to highlight his own endorsement by term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, touting the state’s “remarkable comeback” over the past eight years.

While Schuette compared Whitmer to Granholm, Whitmer distanced herself from the former governor by saying she fought a “raid on the School Aid Fund” that began under the Democrat. Whitmer also noted her bipartisan work with Snyder to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.

Schuette offered support for a state Senate plan to require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work or lose coverage, calling it an important “for our culture and ethics” and “in terms of efficient expenditure of taxpayer resources.”

Asked about the impact of state revenue sharing cuts on Michigan cities, Schuette pivoted and said cutting auto insurance rates could help stimulate the economy, noting a plea from a worker at the Stromy Kromer hat factory he recently toured in Ironwood.

Thanedar said the state needs to take care of cities, bringing “compassion and love” back to Lansing.

“Was your question about revenue sharing?” Whitmer asked moderators, jabbing Schuettte and Thanedar. They’re “going to fix it with Stormy Kromers and love?”   

The large and bipartisan debate field usually benefits candidates who are behind in the polls by putting them on the same stage as front runners, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan,.

But Schuette did little to lose his front runner status in the GOP primary, Kall said. He had the  “best overall performance” on the Republican side, while Calley was “balanced but not dynamic at all.”

Among Democrats, Whitmer had a “solid performance” but at times appeared over-scripted, Kall said. El-Sayed “may have been the most dynamic debater,” but “some of his positions may be a little too far to the left and liberal to win.”

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s political action committee organized the  debate and invited three candidates from each major party who topped primary polls. 

Dr. Jim Hines of Saginaw, who did not make the cut to participate in the debate, blasted the policy conference from afar, calling it the “ultimate insider’s gathering” where politicians mingle with lobbyists and talk “about the exact same problems they never fix.”

The debate was moderated by Detroit News editorial page editor Nolan Finley, WDET host Stephen Henderson and Detroit Public Television host Christy McDonald.


Second from left, Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette will be debating with three Democratic hopefuls at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Dr. Jim Hines, left, was not invited.


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