Michigan moments: Five times the state took center stage in first debate

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney makes a point Tuesday night in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates  in Detroit.

Presidential candidates and moderators evoked Michigan cities and issues in Tuesday's first of two back-to-back Democratic debates at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Here are five times they were discussed: 

1. Detroit's revival as a model 

Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland attacked progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on the question of “electability,” arguing Democrats need to run on "real solutions, not impossible promises."

"Look at the story of Detroit, this amazing city that we're in. This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together," Delaney said.

"That has to be our model going forward. We need to encourage collaboration between the government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector, and focus on those kitchen table, pocketbook issues that matter to hard-working Americans: building infrastructure, creating jobs, improving their pay."

Sanders said he was "delighted" to see Detroit rebounding. 

"But let us understand, Detroit was nearly destroyed because of awful trade policy which allowed corporations to throw workers in this community out on the streets as they moved to low-wage countries," Sanders said. 

"To win this election, and to defeat Donald Trump — which, by the way, in my view, is not going to be easy — we need to have a campaign of energy and excitement and of vision.

"We need to bring millions of young people into the political process in a way that we have never seen by, among other things, making public colleges and universities tuition-free and canceling student debt." 

Detroit has had two auto assembly plants for many years throughout the North American Free Trade Agreement until General Motors Co. this year idled its Detroit-Hamtramck factory where the Chevy Volt hybrid electric car was made. The other is Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant where sport utility vehicles are made.

2. 'Flint is the tip of the iceberg'

CNN moderator Dana Bash posed a question from a Democratic voter in Michigan — Kimber of Birmingham — who asked, "What is your plan to address infrastructure, including the water issue so another Flint, Michigan does not happen again?"

Marianne Williamson, the spiritual author, warned that the Flint water contamination crisis was the “tip of the iceberg” for infrastructure and environmental failures that will disproportionately affect communities of color.

"I was in Denmark, South Carolina, where it is a lot of talk about it being the next Flint. We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act," Williamson said. 

"We have communities, particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country, who are suffering from environmental injustice.

"I assure you. I lived in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe," added Williamson, who led Renaissance Unity Church in Warren for several years.

"This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight — if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days. We need to say it like it is, it’s bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country."

3. Fill empty factories with EVs

Candidates were asked about whether they would continue Trump's tariffs, which helped the American steel industry but hurt auto manufacturers "like those here in Michigan" — something that could drive up the cost of cars and trucks for consumers, CNN moderator Don Lemon said. 

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the auto industry has a role to play in competing with China but also the future of the climate-change debate, citing the importance of electric vehicles.

"I think we need some targeted response against China. But you know how you beat China? You out compete them. We’ve got to fill these factories in Detroit and Youngstown that used to make cars and steel — we’ve got to fill them with workers who are making electric vehicles, batteries, charging stations, make sure they’re making solar panels," Ryan said.

"We’re going to make 10 million electric vehicles somewhere in the world in the next 10 years. I want them made in the United States.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, makes a point during Tuesday's debate.

4. 600,000 Michigan union workers 

Sanders and some of his critics on stage debated whether his Medicare for All proposal would harm the quality of health care benefits for 600,000 union members in Michigan who would have to give up their private healthcare plans under his plan for universal coverage. 

"They will be better because Medicare for All is comprehensive. It covers all healthcare needs. For senior citizens, it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses," Sanders said. 

Ryan interjected: "But you don't know that. You don't know that, Bernie."

"I do know it. I wrote the damn bill," Sanders snapped.

"Second of all, many of our union brothers and sisters — nobody more pro-union than me up here — are now paying high deductibles and copayments," Sanders added.

"When we do Medicare for All, instead of having the company putting money in to healthcare, they can get decent wage increases, which they're not getting today."

But Ryan argued that Sanders "does not know all of the union contracts in the United States."

"I'm trying to explain that these union members are losing their jobs, their wages have been stagnant, the world is crumbling around them. The only thing they have is possibly really good healthcare," Ryan said. 

"And the Democratic message is going to be, we're going to go in and the only thing you have left we're going to take it, and we're going to do better. I do not think that's a recipe for success for us, it's bad policy and it's certainly bad politics." 

Delaney argued that Sanders' bill "by definition," would lead to lower-quality healthcare because it would adopt the current Medicare rates, which only covers 80 percent of the costs of healthcare in this country, he said. 

"Private insurance covers 120 percent, so if you start underpaying all the healthcare providers, you're going to create a two-tier market where wealthy people buy their healthcare with cash, and the people who are forced — like my dad, the union electrician — will have that healthcare plan taken away from him." 

5. Buttigieg swipes at DeVos 

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he doesn’t support cancelling all student debt but would back stricter standards for for-profit colleges, which Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of Michigan relaxed. 

“If we want to start wiping away student debt, here's where I would start. I would start with the for-profit colleges that took advantage of people, especially veterans, by the way. The moment I redeployed, my Facebook ad feed started filling with ads from these for-profit colleges,” Buttigieg said. 

“Under President Obama, they were held accountable for whether they delivered results. President Trump, under a secretary of education who regrettably is from this state, did away with those rules. There's no accountability. On my watch, those colleges that turned the Department of Education into a predatory lender, that's where we would begin when it came to getting rid of loans.”


Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed