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Grand Rapids — Democratic hopefuls Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar stayed to the political left of Gretchen Whitmer on policy but shied away from direct attacks against the establishment favorite Wednesday night in the party’s first televised gubernatorial debate.

Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing, was the only Democrat in the debate who did not advocate for a single-payer health care system. It is a potentially expensive program championed by the progressive left and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won Michigan’s 2016 presidential primary.

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Democrat Gretchen Whitmer after gubernatorial debate June 20

“I’m the only one on this stage that’s actually delivered on providing health care in this state,” Whitmer said, referencing her work to negotiate a bipartisan 2013 law that expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. “We agree on a lot of things, and getting every person covered is part of all our agendas.”

But “we don’t agree on everything," said Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township. The former Detroit health director touted his state-based Medicare-for-all proposal he wants to pay for by raising taxes on large businesses with gross receipts over $2 million a year and individuals through a graduated income tax.

El-Sayed did not name Whitmer but jabbed her over a campaign fundraiser hosted by executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the state’s largest private health insurer.

“To speak the truth, you cannot be taking money from the same special interests that have bought our politics for too long,” El-Sayed said.

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Democrat Abdul El-Sayed after a gubernatorial debate on June 20.

Thanedar said he’d also push for a state-based, single-payer health care system if Democratic-led efforts to create a federal system fail. Too many health care dollars go to insurance companies, the Ann Arbor businessman said.

“A single-payer system would be cheaper to cover people and we could negotiate better pricing” on prescriptions,” he argued.

The candidates found common ground earlier in the one-hour debate when they took turns blasting Republican President Donald Trump over a border policy he reversed Wednesday amid public outcry. They accused him of ceding the country's moral ground by separating children from parents caught illegally entering the country.

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Democrat Shri Thanedar after gubernatorial debate June 20.

While immigration is a federal policy, Michigan's governor could use his or her "bully pulpit" to oppose harmful policies, Whitmer said.

Michigan should make clear it would not send National Guard troops to the Southern border if requested by the Trump administration and could sue the federal government over child separations, she said.

The border policy "is tearing families apart," El-Sayed said, mistakenly referencing the Coast Guard instead of the National Guard. 

Thanedar called the rescinded border policy "not only inhumane, but very unfair and very un-American."

Despite the oblique attacks against her, the debate was Whitmer's "best performance thus far," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, who also analyzed a bipartisan debate last month on Mackinac Island. 

Whitmer, who spent part of her childhood in Grand Rapids, connected with the audience by repeatedly noting her local roots and shared personal connections she's made with voters and constituents, Kall said.

El-Sayed "comes across as the most gubernatorial" Democratic candidate, said political pundit Bill Ballenger. "But he’s running a distant third, and what was surprising tonight is that he never pulled the trigger on actually fingering Whitmer as the 'prisoner of corporate interests' he kept talking about."

The 33-year-old political newcomer repeatedly attacked special interest politics. When Whitmer proposed a new state agency focused on ensuring clean water and preventing another Flint-like contamination crisis, El-Sayed said the problem with state government is that it's "been brought off by corporations.”

On guns and school safety, Whitmer said her daughters attend public schools and have to always assess how they might exit their classroom in the event of an attack.

“Our kids are scared to death and no one in Lansing is doing about it,” she said. “That’s going to change.”

Whitmer said she supports red flag “extreme order protection” legislation that could allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from people deemed threats. She also wants to pursue more rigorous waiting periods for gun purchases, strengthen background checks and ban bump stocks.

El-Sayed said Democrats have to just come out and say it: We need to “ban assault weapons.” The focus should be about gun reform, not mental illness, he said.

Thanedar said guns should not be allowed in schools and not in teachers’ hands. Schools need more money for metal detectors, cameras and security guards, he said.

Both Whitmer and El-Sayed sidestepped a question about how much money it would take to fix Michigan’s roads and bridges. Thanedar answered that his proposed 30-year, $30 billion municipal bond plan would repair roads and streets through borrowing.

El-Sayed and Whitmer said they would create a special kind of bank for borrowing money to invest in fixing the roads as well as use smarter approaches to investing in roads, water and school infrastructure.

“We’ve had a failure of leadership on infrastructure in Michigan,” Whitmer said.

Thanedar blamed the state’s roads for causing his car to break down during the campaign, including before Wednesday’s debate. He said he had to borrow his wife’s car to travel to Grand Rapids, where WOOD TV hosted the debate.

The candidates also found common ground with calls to shut down Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, and each said they support a ballot proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

Whitmer said she would ensure that marijuana is kept away from children and that the criminal histories of those convicted of pot offenses would be expunged. But she said she supports legalization in part because of her experience in caring for her mother when she died of brain cancer.

Marijuana legalization is a “civil rights issue” because more African-Americans are arrested for pot offenses, tearing apart the community’s social fabric, El-Sayed said. But he would ensure people are punished for driving while under the influence and would keep the drug away from children.

Thanedar said he would pardon nonviolent offenders for marijuana convictions, expunge their records and ensure the returning prisoners would get retrained to find jobs.

The debate was moderated by WOOD TV political reporter Rick Albin. The in-studio audience was a blend of guests invited by each of the three candidates and the Michigan Democratic Party.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser criticized all three candidates in Wednesday night's debate, suggesting Democrats are "devoid" of new ideas while GOP candidates can show results.

"All three Democrats simply regurgitated the extreme left-wing policies of Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in a desperate attempt to see who could be the most “pure” progressive," Weiser said in a statement. Their policies would result in "more spending, higher taxes, and bigger government." 

Whitmer has locked up most traditional union support and political establishment endorsements in her bid for the Democratic nomination. But Thanedar has spent aggressively on television ads to boost his profile, and El-Sayed is courting the progressive left.

Republicans debated in the same WOOD-TV studios last month, and both parties are each planning another televised debate in Detroit.

For the GOP, Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines will share a stage again on June 28 at WDIV.  Democrats will meet at WDIV on July 19.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder cannot seek re-election due to term limits. The Michigan primary is Aug. 7.

joosting@detroitnews.com.

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