MACKINAC ISLAND — Four years after Flint residents began drinking water tainted with lead, candidates for Michigan governor offered emotional, competing visions of the tragedy during a debate Thursday.
Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who led her Democratic colleagues at the time the city’s water source switched, sparred with Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley over a series of mistakes that led to the contamination of the city’s water supply in 2014.
“We have seen the people of Flint pay the most dire price for failed government on every level,” Whitmer said.
“Children brushed their teeth with poison for 2 ½ years before anyone in their state government did a darn thing about it.”
Re-watch the entire Mackinac Island governor debate here:
Calley used Flint as a selling point for his candidacy, arguing that he worked so much there that he had to file a city income tax return in 2016.
“Do you want the type of leadership in a time of crisis who will point fingers?” he asked. “We need to be looking forward on what happens there today, and Flint is on a roll right now.”
The exchange came during a one-hour debate that capped the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. The debate was the second, and likely last, time six candidates from both major political parties will share a stage before the Aug. 7 primary.
One candidate, Dr. Jim Hines, a Saginaw Township Republican, was excluded because he is polling fourth in the field. The state’s GOP and Democratic parties plan to hold separate debates this summer.
Flint was a recurring theme Thursday, with Democrats Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar using it as a symbol for the breakdown of trust in government.
After the debate, Whitmer told Bridge she’d take money from the state’s rainy-day fund to support “the wraparound services that (Flint children) need,” while Calley pointed to early-childhood program efforts in the city and said his commitment to Flint will continue after the election.
“I don’t hide out, I don’t point fingers. I don’t cast blame. I don’t look backward,” he said. “I go there. I’m with people.”
Here are other takeaways from the debate.
Fix the roads?
Republican candidates generally rejected tax increases to fix roads.
State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, said the state instead could focus on using different materials to build longer-lasting roads. Attorney General and Republican frontrunner Bill Schuette said there’s enough money in a $56 billion state budget to fix roads without raising taxes.
The Legislature in 2015 adopted a road-funding plan, which will draw $1.2 billion from diverted income tax revenue and increases to the state’s gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees when fully implemented by 2021.
That funding level, however, has been criticized by Democrats and business leaders as insufficient to repair the state’s roads.
Michigan has ranked near the bottom of states nationally on the condition of its infrastructure, and a commission Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed to study the state’s infrastructure systems pegged the cost of fixing it at roughly $4 billion per year.
No candidates mentioned how they would come up with that much money.
Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman, said he wants to impose a graduated income tax system that would raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations; some of the revenue would be used to pay for infrastructure.
Education is one of the state’s most immediate priorities, as Michigan kids fail to keep pace with students in other states in academic achievement. It was a top topic at the policy conference and debate.
All candidates agreed Michigan needs help, but disagreed on how to do so and offered broad policy recommendations.
Calley called education his “No. 1 priority” and hailed teachers as heroes, while Thanedar said he will be known as the “education governor” and implement universal preschool.
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- He loved teaching math in Michigan. Then he quit to manage a Chick-fil-A.
- Which Michigan 3rd-graders will flunk reading? The state has no idea.
- Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.
Colbeck called for the elimination of Common Core academic standards voluntarily adopted by the state and more school choice. Schuette said he would create a Cabinet-level director of literacy to make reading skills a priority, grade schools on performance and award high-performing ones extra money.
Whitmer, however, noted that attorneys in Schuette’s office have argued in court that literacy is not a fundamental constitutional right. She also said she will oppose efforts to divert money from the School Aid Fund, which goes to schools, to fill budget holes in Michigan’s general fund.
El-Sayed placed some blame for Michigan’s education failures on the state’s charter school model, backed by now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family are prominent Republican donors.
Race and religious tension
Colbeck and El-Sayed again clashed over race and religion, as the state senator said the doctor “needs to be doing some explaining” about his alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Colbeck raised the unfounded accusations during a speech posted online that made national news, leading to a spat at a recent debate at a Michigan Press Association convention that ended when El-Sayed told Colbeck “you might not hate Muslims, but I’ll tell you, Muslims definitely hate you.” El-Sayed later apologized.
El-Sayed is “playing a religion card and he’s playing a race card …” Colbeck said. “The hate speech has been coming from Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.”
El-Sayed took a Constitution from his breast pocket and said it “protects my right to pray as I choose to pray” and Colbeck’s claims speak to a “long history of people who look a little bit different than the senator” being discriminated against.
“The way that racism works is it’s a distraction” from issues like Flint, water shutoffs in Detroit and corporate welfare, El-Sayed said, before talking about the state economy.
The format of the debate didn’t allow for much give-and-take or deep policy discussions, so candidates often reverted back to their favorite talking points.
Whitmer repeatedly vowed to “fix the damn roads.” At least twice, Schuette mentioned his endorsement from President Donald Trump and often returned the conversation to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, vowing to “drive a stake through the legacy of (her) governorship.” And Thanedar at least twice called Michigan “one big family.”
At times, the six candidates ignored the questions. Asked about reduced revenue sharing to cities, Schuette talked about a recent trip to Ironwood and endorsed the Upper Peninsula’s iconic Stormy Kromer hats, while Thanedar answered: “We need to bring compassion and love back into Lansing.”
Whitmer was incredulous.
“Was your question about revenue sharing? (They’re) going to fix it with Stormy Kromers and love?”