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Detroit — Democrats Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed clashed early and often in a Thursday televised gubernatorial debate, with Whitmer fighting back against a series of withering attacks.  

El-Sayed accused Whitmer of “corruption” for raising campaign funds at a party hosted by health insurance executives, blasted a group backing her in TV ads for failing to reveal donors in a timely fashion and called the former state Senate minority leader a “status quo” politician.

Whitmer, the presumptive favorite in the Aug. 7 primary, stood her ground — and threw several counter punches — in an hour-long debate on WDIV that also featured Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar.

“I’m tough. I can take it,” Whitmer said early on. “What we deserve in Michigan is better than that. I’m staying focused on the issues that matter.”

El-Sayed advocated for a state-level single-payer health care system and attacked Whitmer for benefiting from a campaign fundraiser hosted by executives from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the state’s largest private insurer, calling it a form of “corruption” that shouldn’t happen in the Democratic primary.

Whitmer “takes credit for health care reform, but the fact is (she’s) taking money from the same corporations and those same individuals who want to maintain the status quo,” said El-Sayed, former Detroit health department director and a favorite of the progressive left. 

Whitmer touted her work in the state Senate on a bipartisan law to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act and said she would fight Trump administration attempts to scale back the law. Nearly 670,000 residents now have insurance under the Healthy Michigan plan championed by term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I’m not going to be lectured by anyone on this stage or even the other party on health care,” said Whitmer, the daughter of a former Blue Cross chief executive.

Asked about civility in politics, the East Lansing Democrat argued her primary rivals have “gone off the rails” by “spinning” stories against her with “the most divisive language.”

“I’m not doing that,” Whitmer said. “I have stood up for them when they’ve been attacked as well.”

The debate boiled down to a two-person contest between Whitmer and El-Sayed, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. He gave El-Sayed a narrow edge over Whitmer but said it's unlikely the performance would change the trajectory of the race.

El-Sayed "seemed more confident, while Whitmer continually looked down at notes and seemed stunned by being directly confronted," Kall said. Thanedar "seemed nervous and unsure throughout the evening. He never got far beyond the message of being a self-made successful businessman." 

On roads, Thanedar said he would cut corporate incentives, enact prison reforms and try to implement a graduated income tax to help pay for a 30-year, $30 billion bond to “take Michigan’s infrastructure to the next level.”

Whitmer repeated her campaign mantra that it’s time to “fix the damn roads” and said she’d ask voters to approve a bond if the Legislature is “too weak” to approve new revenue. She supported gas tax and registration fee increases in the Senate.

El-Sayed noted that Whitmer served 14 years in the state Legislature but “the roads still aren’t fixed.”

“It’s about more than fixing the darned roads. It’s about fixing our politics,” he said.

When asked to explain why taxes should be raised, El-Sayed said people are frustrated that state government is not giving them value for their tax dollars on education, roads and health care.

“All I’m seeing is” tax cuts for the rich, he said, adding that he is proposing that “everyone is paying their fair share,” so “government works for the people.”

Whitmer evaded the question and attacked Republicans for not fixing the roads. “You are paying a tax if you get a tire fixed” or get an alignment, she said.

That is a road tax that Republicans have “shifted on to us,” Whitmer said, adding that lead contaminated water in Flint and 71 other communities statewide or contamination by other chemicals is “a tax because government isn’t getting the job done.”

Thanedar acknowledged he would increase taxes for higher-income individuals by installing a graduated income tax system while eliminating the state income tax for anyone making $50,000 or less.

The new tax structure would generate enough money to invest in early childhood education, he said.  “There’s a number of things Michigan must invest in, and education is No. 1,” Thanedar said.

El-Sayed accused Whitmer of using "Republican gimmicks" in the Democratic primary, noting that a group running television ads that feature her have not yet released a donor disclosure report that was supposed to be filed by Sunday. 

Facing continued attacks over her connections to Blue Cross, Whitmer said El-Sayed has also received $170,000 in contributions from corporate executives at other companies.

“You can’t be half pregnant on this one,” she said, accusing him of hypocrisy.

While Michigan’s economy has rebounded under term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Democrats argued his administration focused too much on businesses at the expense of average residents.

“If we want a good business climate, we’ve got to have a good people climate,” Whitmer said, noting her plans to improve education and provide two years of tuition free college for qualifying students.  “We’re not a successful state until we’re a successful state of people.”

Thanedar, who started and grew businesses in Missouri and Michigan, said he knows what it takes to create jobs.

“Corporate incentives don’t create jobs,” he said. “Giving skill sets to the people of Michigan will create jobs.”

El-Sayed said he’d reshape the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to focus exclusively on growing and incubating small businesses rather than large companies seeking tax breaks.

“This was never supposed to be a government for corporations and by corporations,” he said. “But rather for the people and by the people.”

The Democrats agreed on abortion rights, saying they would fight to keep the procedure legal in Michigan if President Donald Trump’s second appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court helps overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I will use every ounce of my power as governor to protect a women’s right to choose,” said Whitmer, suggesting she could propose and champion an amendment to the Michigan Constitution. “I’ve done it before on stem cell research.”

Whitmer said Michigan’s and Detroit’s education systems used to be the best in the world, but have become among the worst. She was referring to when Detroit was considered a model for the nation in the 1920s.

She said she promote early childhood education, triple the number of literacy coaches and elevate the profession of teachers.

El-Sayed said Michigan’s schools are in a shambles.

“We’ve gone from the top 10 to the bottom 10,” he said, without citing when exactly Michigan was last in the top 10.

El-Sayed said he wanted to break the “chokehold” of corporate-run charter schools and eliminate them.

Thanedar said he would push universal child care and early childhood education for Michigan families, and pay the teachers well.

“Education was the ladder for me to pull myself out of poverty, but that ladder is broken” for too many Michiganians, he said.

The Democratic primary winner will face the victor among Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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