James, Pensler clash on abortion, Trump in GOP U.S. Senate debate

Leonard N. Fleming and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Republican senatorial hopefuls Sandy Pensler, left, and John James settle in on the set of WKAR's Off The Record before a debate moderated by host Tim Skubick.

East Lansing — Republican candidates John James and Sandy Pensler clashed during testy exchanges Friday on abortion, the death penalty and who was a bigger supporter of President Donald Trump in their only scheduled U.S. Senate debate.

The debate between the two businessmen, seated beside each other at a table, began on the contentious issue of abortion. James attacked Pensler as a pro-choice advocate despite the Grosse Pointe financier's assertions of having evolved on the issue like Trump and other notable GOP heroes such as President Ronald Reagan.

“First of all, I’m a pro-life conservative and have been ever since my son was born 20 years ago and my views changed on that," Pensler said. "I’m strongly pro-life and I’m always truthful.”

His views were based on his life experience, not his political ambitions, Pensler said.

But James said values matter, and groups such as Right to Life of Michigan have endorsed him over Pensler. 

Declaring he’s a Christian conservative, the Farmington Hills businessman said Pensler is a pro-choice candidate because “this isn’t just a label, these are values that are based very, very deeply in who we are.”

“The thing is, what you say and what you do, are two completely different things,” James said. "The fact of the matter is, we've talked to the same people and no one believes that."

James said Pensler would be open to pro-choice U.S. Supreme Court nominees, a charge that Pensler denied, calling him "phony John James."

The no-rules-format debate, taped as part of a special "Off the Record" television broadcast at WKAR, was moderated by longtime Michigan Capitol correspondent Tim Skubick and lasted about 45 minutes.

While Pensler came with his wife, son and a few aides, James had a rally tent of supporters — mostly young 20-somethings — outside the WKAR studio at Michigan State University. James' mother Sharon shared a prolonged hug with her son just before the post-debate scrum with reporters.

The two hopefuls have attacked each other on contentious social issues to try to gain an edge as the most conservative candidate in a GOP Aug. 7 primary that will determine who faces U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in November.

The friction continued on the death penalty, which James said he opposes while Pensler said he supports. 

"Have you ever seen somebody die?" James asked Pensler, adding that he believes as a pro-life candidate that life extends to the unborn and the born.

Political donation fight

Pensler and James also traded barbs over political donations. Pensler jabbed James for his lone political contribution to date: a $500 contribution to Detroit City Council member Raquel Castenada-Lopez, “a leftist pro-choice city council candidate.”

James did not fully explain the Castenada-Lopez contribution during the debate but later told reporters he was acting as a businessman when he attended a meet-and-greet with her before she became a vocal supporter of “sanctuary city” policies, which James said he opposes.

James incorrectly accused Pensler of plastering his home address on broadcast television, suggesting his primary rival put his family "at risk" to score political points. 

Pensler has aired an attack ad criticizing James for the  Castaneda-Lopez contribution, but the commercial does not list his address.  The James' campaign later noted  online ads that direct to a related Pensler website that shows a Wayne County contribution record, including James' home address in Farmington Hills.

Pensler also donated to Democrats in the past, including former Democratic Georgia U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, who James said supports “partial-birth abortion.”

Pensler acknowledged the contribution, noting Cleland is a Vietenam War veteran who had his leg blown off. He found Cleland’s story compelling but said he later regretted the contribution because Cleland “ended up being far too liberal for me.”

“Unlike Mr. James, who has never given to a Republican candidate, I’ve given to over 30,” Pensler said. 

The issue was enflamed earlier this week when the James campaign revealed a mailer was mistakenly sent out to a large sample of Republican primary voters saying James would "defend" — instead of defund — sanctuary cities. The printing firm put out a statement through the James campaign admitting the error.


Trump support

Trump has not endorsed in the primary, but the president became an issue in the debate. Both Pensler and James admitted they did not initially support Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

Both candidates say they now support Trump — offering little criticism aside from a budget proposal that would have slashed Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding — but he wasn’t their first choice in the 2016 presidential primary.

James voted for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whom he praised for his conservative record and pro-life commitment. He met Cruz when James was in the military.

“I voted my values first, and I believe Ted Cruz most aligned with my values,” James said. “I’m a Republican because I’m a conservative.”

Pensler said he voted for Trump in the Michigan primary but had initially supported U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Trump entered the race “like a bull in a china shop, and I was worried a little bit about that,” Pensler said. He eventually concluded that Trump’s style “was actually what was needed in Washington” and could yield a new way of looking at old problems.

But James questioned Pensler's support of Trump, arguing he once derided the president as a fourth grader. Calling the president "a fourth grader is not a compliment," he said.

Pensler countered that James was distorting what he said, which could have been better phrased. Trump boils issues down to a fourth-grade level and that's a great skill to have, he said.

Guns, legalized pot, gay workers

Skubick asked both candidates how many guns they own. Pensler and James said they both own guns and believe in gun rights but didn't want to be specific about their gun ownership.

“More than 3 and less than 2 million,” James quipped, explaining he wouldn't disclose the number for the personal security of his family.

Pensler said he has one gun but added he would never disclose where he keeps it on broadcast television.

Pensler and James both said they do not think an employer should be able to fire a worker because he or she is gay, which is not barred by Michigan’s anti-discrimination law. State and federal efforts to extend protections have been complicated by debates over religious liberty.

“I absolutely do not believe that someone’s sexual preference should be the grounds for firing,” Pensler said.

James agreed.

“I hate bigotry in all its forms,” he said. “My job is to love.”

Both candidates said they oppose efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, but Pensler said he would respect the will of voters if they approve a ballot measure this fall.

Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth term, had about $8.8 million cash on hand at the end of March — more than Pensler and James combined.

James had $1.19 million in cash at the end of the period, while Pensler had nearly $3.98 million in cash reserves after loaning his campaign $5 million last year. He has raised a small fraction of his campaign war chest from individual donors.

Debate on debates

Friday's forum  may be the only televised debate of the primary season between the two Republicans, who have also agreed to a radio debate July 18 on WJR-AM in Detroit.

James has accused Pensler of ducking more debates, and his campaign said Friday he has agreed to second joint television appearance on WDIV’s “Flashpoint.” An email provided to The Detroit News showed the station had extended the offer to the Pensler campaign and was waiting to hear back. 

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Pensler said Friday, denying knowledge of the WDIV offer but indicating that he is willing to do more debates.

“I love debates,” he said. “We’ll work through the Republican Party. As long as there’s interest from the public and we’ve got a format that is reasonable, we’ll see how it goes.”
James said he continues to leave the door open to further debates.

“I’m sure the folks in Ottawa and the folks in Macomb (County) would welcome us with open arms,” he said. “My opponent seems to like to use television to bash me (in commercials). He should have televised debates to answer for it.”

Both men kept jabbing each other after the debate. Pensler argued that James lacked integrity and 'there are several things in his background where his actions don't match his words."

James accused Pensler of trying to “impugn someone whose values originate from being a Christian and being a conservative — that’s how I arrived here.”

Both candidates said they were the best one this fall to beat Stabenow. Pensler said he has the "competency and experience" to win, while James said his experience as a real conservative would be victorious.