Candidates got 5 hours on Detroit stage, failed to focus on Michigan issues

A chorus of complaints rang out across Michigan in the wake of the Detroit debates this week as activists, lawmakers and others lamented how the forums glossed over or skipped issues uniquely important to the state.

The Flint water crisis, trade deals, auto manufacturing, crumbling infrastructure, the Great Lakes and pensions were mentioned briefly or not at all during five-plus hours over two nights at the gilded Fox Theatre. 

Despite the host city — among the nation's poorest — viewers heard little or no discussion of poverty, transportation, education, housing, urban development or gentrification. 

Democratic presidential hopefuls (from left) Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Vice President Joe Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, businessman Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio take their places on stage before the start of the second night of Democratic presidential debates at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Wednesday.

"I thought it was very, very unfortunate, and CNN missed an opportunity. Why bother coming to Detroit if you’re not going to speak to the issues Detroit has?" said the Rev. Charles Williams II, a local pastor who heads the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network.

"Candidates referenced Detroit a few times as if it were the poster child for success. I heard few candidates say, you know, 'Detroit is doing great.' Hold up, really?" Williams said. 

"One in six children go to bed hungry. These are numbers coming from the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. Sixty percent are in poverty. I mean, these are a big deal. For them to not reference that but talk about how great downtown looks, that was like a dagger."

Michiganians across the spectrum agreed the omissions were a missed opportunity. An estimated 8.7 million viewers watched Tuesday's debate and 10.7 million tuned in Wednesday, according to CNN, which aired the forums. 

"Hey, remember the time the Dems had 2 days of debates in Michigan and not one candidate brought up the Great Lakes even once?" Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel tweeted. "WE ARE LITERALLY CALLED 'THE GREAT LAKES STATE'!"

Analysts say the matter is a "classic and delicate" balancing act for moderators whose TV audience is national in scope.

“The significance of Detroit, Michigan, as the debate location is patently obvious, but the millions of viewers simultaneously tune in from all across the country,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.

That said, Kall did expect more of an extended local focus in Detroit. While the moderators focused elsewhere, the candidates are always free to pivot the conversation in that direction, he added. Most did not.

Pleading for Michigan focus

Leading up to the debates, elected officials representing Michigan for weeks implored the 2020 presidential hopefuls to talk up issues that matter to the state, oft repeating a line about the path to the White House going through Michigan. 

President Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016 — the first Republican to do so since 1988. But Democrats rallied to sweep statewide offices in last fall's midterm elections, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer who won by nearly 9 percentage points. 

Whitmer has encouraged candidates to focus on issues she touted in her campaign last year, including infrastructure, clean drinking water, K-12 education spending and closing the skills gap. 

“You go into any grocery store in this state, people are not focusing on the president's Twitter feed. They are focusing on feeding their families," she told CNN this week. 

"At the end of the day, people are losing sleep over the fundamentals, not about what's happening in Washington." 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, wanted to hear the 2020 candidates talk more about issues such as education and trade that "working men and women care about, in plain language that isn’t gobbledygook.”

“I think President Trump won his election on trade, and trade matters to the people of Michigan,” said Dingell, who ran former Vice President Al Gore's Michigan campaign in 2000.

“They want a trade deal that works. We need a new NAFTA, but we don’t need one that lets them still pay $1.50 an hour in Mexico.”

'Drive-by' mention of Flint

The candidates did take up some "table-top" items at length, such as health care, but became mired in attempts to exploit nuanced differences in their plans and individual histories that don't resonate with average voters, said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township. 

He was surprised candidates failed to address the Great Lakes — a largely nonpartisan issue, he noted — but he was particularly frustrated by the brief attention paid to Flint's water crisis.

"I was disappointed in the light touch that Flint was given. Both nights there was a question. Both nights the question was only allowed to be answered by a couple of the candidates," Kildee said. "It was almost like a drive by. I think that’s a mistake."

When candidates want to talk about racial justice, income inequality and the need for infrastructure investment, Flint is an obvious choice, Kildee said.

"You have the case study for all these issues one hour to the north, and it’s a drive they all know because many have gone there. While in the shadow of Flint speaking to Michigan voters, it was a lost opportunity not to talk about it," he said. 

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks during the debate.

By contrast, a 2016 presidential debate with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was held in Flint a few days before Michigan's Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. 

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard seemed to regret the candidates on stage failed to address both Detroit and Flint’s urban agendas.

“There’s a lot of rebuilding and revitalization that’s happening here but there are still too many people here in Detroit who are suffering. There are too many people in Flint who are still suffering," Gabbard said after leaving the debate stage late Wednesday.

"This is an opportunity that we could have focused on more through the questions that were being asked to shine a light on the city that’s hosting us.”

Instead, moderators asked broad-reaching questions about race, immigration, economics and health care. "Nothing about an urban agenda," Williams said.

"I just thought it was very interesting that CNN plopped into downtown Detroit, set up their stage, talked to no leaders from the urban community and asked no questions about what kind of issues for a city like Detroit need to be asked," he said. 

CNN did not respond Thursday to requests for comment. 

Williams noted that cities like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, which had low voter turnout in 2016 compared with 2012, are key for the eventual nominee to clinch major Electoral College states that Trump won in 2016. 

Democrats "sure didn't act like they cared about what Detroiters thought and what the needs are in the community," Williams said. 

"I don’t know how Democrats believe they’re going to drive out urban voters when they’re talking 1,000-mile-high issues. Don’t get me wrong — the issues they talked about are important to everybody and to me, but there's some very close to home issues they just skipped right over." 

The debates were an “excellent” opportunity to show the city off to candidates and attendees — both its recent improvements and ongoing struggles, said Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

“But there was not a lot of talk about urban problems throughout the United States, and that’s something that all the candidates are going to have to face throughout the election,” Jones said.

“There are still some problems going on other than health care. There’s still poverty in some of these cities that have to be faced.”

Heeding lessons of 2016

Democrats’ failure to address major Michigan issues could set them up for a loss similar to the 2016 election, said John Sellek, a Republican strategist who worked on former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“It was a major missed opportunity for them to speak directly to blue-collar voters in Michigan,” said Sellek, noting the candidates left a lot of "day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues on the table.”

Instead of heeding warnings from state Democratic leaders, the candidates shifted left — apparently to appease the primary base, he said.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro answer questions from the media after the second Democratic presidential debate

“You saw Gov. Whitmer and Mayor Duggan say ‘Stop, slow down,’ and they basically got run over,” Sellek said.

If candidates won’t risk a Midwest focus in the primary, the eventual nominee would be well-served to pull a running mate from the region to bridge that gap, Sellek said. 

The candidates' hesitation to talk about Michigan issues might have been because other states have earlier primaries, laying first claim to the limited political capital the candidates are able to spend on stage, Kall said. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the former Delaware senator, also has a “home field advantage” in Michigan, given his role in the city's bankruptcy recovery and endorsement last week by Duggan. That might have discouraged his rivals from looking to gain a greater foothold in Michigan, Kall said.

Even so, “when you talk about climate and the environment, it does seem certainly in the Democratic primary that there’s no downside” to speaking about the role of the Great Lakes, he added. 

Trump's win in Michigan was attributed in part to his manufacturing message to blue-collar workers in Metro Detroit hurt by companies moving jobs out of the country as a result of trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox criticized the lack of focus on Midwest manufacturing, agriculture and the president’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to address both industries.

“That’s absolutely wrong when you’re in the Motor City,” Cox said. “And everybody that was on the stage in the pre-show talked about being in the Motor City. Yet, they kind of ignored that elephant in the room.”

The state Republican Party attempted to raise money for Trump’s 2020 reelection off the Democratic debates in Detroit, saying the candidates’ plans “aren’t good for Michigan and would destroy everything that President Trump has accomplished.”

Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed.