Flint, Islam and fixing the damn roads. Your Michigan governor debate recap

Six candidates for Michigan governor clashed over their visions of Flint, taxes and infrastructure during a Thursday debate at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo courtesy Detroit Regional Chamber)

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.

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.

Soundbite city

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?”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 06/01/2018 - 8:58am

You mischaracterized the attacks by colbeck on Abdul elbsayed as a conflict over religion! Not true and you are giving a racist islamaphobic man credit as if this is a credible joint discussion ! Sad to see this in my favorite news source ! Supporting colbexks attacks as if civil discourse is wrong and incorrect !!

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 9:47am

It is difficult to condense everything said or meant from that many panelists answering questions into one news story. I saw it as a recap. I hope it is the first story of many more about the candidates and issues. Racism and hate are hurtful no matter where they originate. It appears to be a staple of our society and growing.

I commend Bridge for its coverage of Michigan government and issues we need to think about. In this day of declining news organizations, we desparately need this source.

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 1:23pm

Islam isn't a race. I bet you wouldn't be defending 'freedom of religion' if the candidates were Nazis. The Islamic world were allied to the Nazis in WW2, btw. Also, Islamophobic isn't a real word. If you think it is, then why are you defending the Christophobic and Jewphobic followers Of Mohammed?

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 10:00am

The simple takeaway from this? Never, ever trust or vote for a democrat!

Kevin R
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 11:17am

Seriously? That is your takeaway? Sounds like your mind was already made up before the debate even began. Blind loyalty is.....blind.

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 9:38pm

The statement is rather absurd given the refusal to do properly fund infrastructure. As with most republicans, the gubernatorial crew apparently believe in a combination of tooth fairy and if that fails, grit. I find it incredible that we have to settle for so little to satisfy their ideologies.

Bill C
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 1:12pm

Your statement "Colbeck raised the unfounded accusations during a speech posted online that made national news," is totally inaccurate. Check the context of the statements he made and the foundation for them in his April 27, 2018 press release which includes: “In recent days, I have been called pathetic, a bigot, a racist, an ass, anti-Muslim, thin-skinned, ignorant, closed-minded, and a coward by Democrats and their allies in the media. What did I say to earn such derogatory remarks? During a forum featuring former Department of Homeland Security Counter-Terrorism expert Dr. Phil Haney and former Muslim Brotherhood member Kamal Saleem, I made a presentation based on the Explanatory Memorandum which outlines the strategy for what the Muslim Brotherhood terms “civilization jihad”. The Explanatory Memorandum has since been entered as evidence in the United States vs Holy Land Foundation trial. Its contents are a matter of evidentiary fact not conjecture. During my presentation, I had the audacity of stating that one of the Democrat candidates for Governor, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The evidence of these ties is undeniable. Please note that my statement was not anti-Muslim any more than associating someone with the Westboro Baptist Church would be seen as anti-Christian. My statement of his association with the Muslim Brotherhood is merely a statement of fact. His father-in-law is a board member and past President of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Holy Land Foundation trial. CAIR was incorporated by three leaders in the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP) in 1994. The IAP is explicitly identified as one of the “friendly” organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Explanatory Memorandum. El-Sayed is also a past Vice President and Member of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) which is also identified as one of the “friendly” organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Explanatory Memorandum. The Pledge of Allegiance recited before MSA gatherings features “jihad is my spirit” and “I will die to establish Islam”. Quite a departure from the Scout Oath I would submit.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 1:12pm

"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."

It's a shame that Dr. El-Sayed didn't bother going past the first few pages of the Michigan Constitution.

He actually might have learned something about what the job of Michigan Governor actually involves.

I'd love to hear where he found the parts about free healthcare, free water, free internet, etc. (all issues that he is running on, if elected).

Did Lansing issue an updated version of the Michigan Constitution since I last read it?

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 1:21pm

Islam's not a race

Joel Kurth
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 6:54pm

Thanks for your comment. El-Sayed mentioned race by calling the claims racism.

Betty Anguiano
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 2:53pm

I would like to know why Green Party nominee for Michigan governor was not present at the debate at Detroit's Regional Chambers Mackinac Policy Conference? Did she not get invited?????????

Joel Kurth
Fri, 06/01/2018 - 6:55pm

Hi Betty. The Detroit Regional Chamber hosted the debate and limited participants to the top three candidates in the Democratic and Republican parties. So no Greens, Libertarians or other parties were invited.

Betty Anguiano
Tue, 06/05/2018 - 9:15am

Oh, I see the duopoly bipartisan BS. There are more then two parties & you misrepresent the minority. I was aware of why, just needed your reasoning in black & white. Like the recount being stopped because the party received only 1%! Lol! The corruption of the Corporate Party holds you all hostages. Keep supporting the duopoly & lead our state into ruin! If you swim in the cesspool of the duopoly.....you stink.

Michael Jefferies
Mon, 06/04/2018 - 9:39am

Thank you for including the last bit about the plan for revenue sharing, or lack thereof. The fact that there is still not a solution, or even idea, from any of the candidates is extremely concerning to me.

Mitch Bean's 2016 editorial (https://www.bridgemi.com/guest-commentary/mitch-bean-starving-michigan-c...) is as true now as it was then.

"No other state cut funding for local governments between 2002 and 2012 as much as Michigan -- and it's not even close. On average, state spending for cities, townships and villages increased nationwide nearly 50 percent. But in Michigan, state funding of local governments fell by nearly 60 percent; the next worse was Kansas at 14 percent."

Until I hear from a candidate on this issue, anything they say related to Flint's water, Detroit's bankruptcy, or even roads and education, I suspect will be empty rhetoric that appeals to the emotions of a good and decent electorate while ignoring the fiscal responsibilities of a politicians' true role in legislating. Michigan deserves better.