Michigan Democratic Reps. Stevens, Levin exchange barbs in second primary debate

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Two Michigan Democratic members of Congress faced off Tuesday night in their second primary debate, exchanging barbs on prescription drugs, abortion access, unionization efforts and corporate donors.

The wide-ranging debate at Oakland University centered on the incumbent-on-incumbent primary in Michigan's new 11th District between moderate U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Waterford Township and progressive Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township.

They are each seeking a third term, vying for the Democratic-leaning seat in Oakland County that after redistricting covers Royal Oak, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield Township and Pontiac.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, left, and U.S. Rep. Andy Levin debate during the Democratic 11th Congressional District debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. on May 24, 2022.

The night's first question went straight to lawmakers' plans for taking on gun violence, hours after news that 18 students and three adults were killed by a gunman at an elementary school in Texas. Just 10 days earlier, a gunman killed 10 Black people shopping in New York market.

Stevens called on President Joe Biden to declare a national emergency in the wake of Tuesday's shooting, saying she had spoken to the White House earlier in the evening. She called for lawmakers to adopt measures such as universal background checks and red flags laws. 

"We are in a break-the-glass moment," Stevens said. "We are living in the upside down. We need change now."

Levin stressed that he supports eliminating the legislative filibuster to push through gun reforms with a simple majority vote in the Senate. 

"We are both backers of the gun bills that have passed through the House, but nothing has moved in the Senate," Levin said. "We simply can’t stand for this … We must take action."

Both candidates said they back eliminating the filibuster to codify the federal protections in Roe v. Wade that established the right to abortion and which are expected to soon be struck down by the Supreme Court.

"In terms of who's the candidate in this race who's been more active on protecting the right to an abortion, I introduced the first ever resolution in Congress to support abortion providers," Levin said.

"We have to lead on this in a much more aggressive way than I think we have have." 

Stevens countered: "What was that just the sound of another 60-something-year-old White man telling me how to talk about choice?"

Stevens, who flipped a GOP seat in 2018, said she is the candidate in the race to "stand up for women's rights for pro-choice values and to make sure that we do not go backwards."

Levin said it was the first time he'd heard Stevens say she supports ending the filibuster. "I believe she's just taking this position in the heat of this campaign," he said. 

Stevens replied that she had signed onto a letter last year supporting the end of the filibuster. 

Levin said he backs expanding the Supreme Court in response to the fall of Roe, and challenged Stevens on whether she would do so. Stevens left open the possibility that she would sign onto a bill to expand the court after reviewing legislation. 

"I haven't had a chance to talk to the president about it or certainly Senator Stabenow or Senator Peters," Stevens said. "But if we can get to a place where we could see a more modern Supreme Court, I will review that legislation, as I do all bills, and sign on."

On health care, the candidates diverged on single-payer health care, with Levin backing Medicare for All, and Stevens pushing for a public option that "allows everyone to access Medicare but doesn't take away private insurance," she said. 

On the future of the Line 5 pipeline segment through the Straits of Mackinac, Levin said it’s "one anchor strike away from ecological disaster.” Levin said his problem with the tunnel proposed to encase it is the risk of leaving the pipeline in place while the tunnel is built.

Stevens favors using diplomatic channels with Canada to “make sure that the worst case” doesn't happen with Line 5. “If we are going to shut the pipeline down, the treaty and the diplomatic action is the way to do it,” Stevens said.

Asked if she supports the tunnel, Stevens said she follows the “cues” of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has sought to shut down the line.

“If we can't reach a negotiated agreement with our friends in Canada, we can put a lot of people back to work by at least getting to some safety measures,” Stevens said.

Both candidates support student debt relief, though Levin said he opposes means testing for any such program, saying it doesn't work. 

"All I'm gonna say is Jeff Bezos' kids do not need to go to college for free," Stevens said.

Stevens said she introduced legislation to tackle interest rates on student loans. Levin's bill to provide two free years of community college was incorporated into President Joe Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

"I don't think Jeff Bezos' kids will be going to community college. Just a guess," Levin said. 

"Why wouldn't Jeff Bezos' kids go to community college?" Stevens asked later. "It's just something for everybody, right?"

The candidates challenged one another on their corporate donations from political action committees, with Stevens pointing out her opponent had taken money from corporate PACs until last week and asking if he would give it all back. 

"I'm not taking any of it anymore. Hardly took any in the first place," Levin said. "It's never too late. You can join me. I mean, I only did it last week. You could do it this week."

A debate moderator prompted Stevens about whether she would give back donations from groups that have endorsed Jan. 6 objectors, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Political Action Committee (AIPAC PAC) that bundled $297,341 in contributions for her last quarter.

Stevens said she'd been endorsed by AIPAC, alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and several dozen members of the House Progressive Caucus. 

"And certainly that endorsement was based on my belief in a strong U.S.-Israel relationship," she said. 

Stevens outraised Levin last quarter, reporting $1.1 million in receipts and nearly $2.8 million in cash reserves as of March 31. Levin brought in $767,268 in the first three months of the year and ended the quarter with $1.47 million in the bank. 

Stevens' campaign has hit Levin for months over his decision to run in the 11th, accusing him of "abandoning" his current constituents, the bulk of whom live next door in the new 10th District.

Stevens didn't directly confront Levin, saying she is running where 60% of her constituents are. "I am fired up to continue moving the agenda forward representing my hometown of Birmingham." 

Levin stressed his roots in the 11th District and said no one in the race represents a majority of the new 11th. 

"It's a mashup of three current members' districts," he said. "I'm running here because it's my home. It's where my politics have always been based, and I'm super excited about it." 

About 41% of Stevens' current district population is in the new 11th District, compared with roughly 26% of Levin's constituents. The rest of the new district is largely represented by retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who has endorsed Stevens.

mburke@detroitnews.com