About the debates
The second round of Democratic presidential debates are 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. They will air live on CNN and be moderated by Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper. Each night, 10 candidates will debate for two hours. They are:
Tuesday: Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson
Wednesday: Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Bill de Blasio, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee and Andrew Yang
Welcome to Michigan, Democratic hopefuls. We have problems.
Tuesday and Wednesday, 20 Democratic presidential candidates will gather at Detroit’s Fox Theatre for the second round of debates. Ten are scheduled each night, and they will no doubt talk Trump, the economy, college tuition, the state of Detroit and health care.
But the candidates are in Michigan because it’s a key swing state in the 2020 election, and its chronic issues – from stagnant population and awful roads to bad schools and polluted waters – are not only critical to the Midwest but could well determine the next occupant of the White House.
So Bridge Magazine consulted state Democrats on the most important, Michigan-based policy issues candidates should discuss – and CNN could ask – during the 8 p.m. debates. Here are the top six.
What role should Washington play in raising student achievement in places like Michigan?
No doubt, the most viral moment of the first debate was Sen. Kamala Harris’ dressing down of former Vice President Joe Biden for his opposition to court-ordered busing in the 1970s to ease education inequality.
Research has found test scores of minorities can often improve in integrated schools. Michigan, though, has the nation’s second-most highly segregated schools, trailing only Washington, D.C.. Forty percent of the state’s black students are in public schools in which more than 90 percent of student bodies are black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Test scores highlight the divide: 19.3 percent of third-grade black students across the state tested proficient in math compared to 53.8 percent of their white counterparts. Nationally, the gap has narrowed since 1970, but black students still score 75 percent less than whites on most standardized tests, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
“We need to improve education in disadvantaged communities,” said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. “Prisons are disproproporationaly filled with black, brown and poor people. (We) can’t do anything about being black, brown or poor, but (we) can make sure every kid is afforded a quality education.”
More money is a tough sell. Nationally, predominantly white schools receive an average of $2,226 less in per-pupil spending than predominantly black ones, according to a report from EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to school overhaul. And other studies suggest money alone can’t close the gap.
Time to bring back busing? It’s a hot topic in the media, but it’s been a non-starter in Michigan since 1974. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a plan to integrate southeast Michigan schools by cross-district busing. Ambitious and controversial, the plan would have involved swapping students from predominantly African-American Detroit to more than 55 mostly-white school districts as far north as Troy and West Bloomfield.
So what role should the federal government play?
Can Washington invest in infrastructure without blowing the deficit?
From crummy roads and dangerous bridges to rising water rates and scarce broadband in northern Michigan, few problems statewide are so pervasive as infrastructure.
“We need to find a way to talk about infrastructure and a federal program for bad water lines,” said John Gleason, clerk of Genesee County, which includes Flint, the city still recovering from contaminated drinking water.
Important? Absolutely. Boring? A little. That’s partly because infrastructure policy is pretty simple: Stuff breaks and money is needed to fix it.
That’s not coming. After a flurry of federal investment in highways and new projects in the 1960s and 1970s, spending dropped dramatically on maintenance: Grants for local water systems alone fell 74 percent nationally since 1977, according to Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.
Donald Trump campaigned on a massive infrastructure investment when he was running for president, but it has not yet materialized. Michigan alone needs $4 billion to maintain roads and infrastructure, according to estimates from a task force convened by former Gov. Rick Snyder, while municipal water rates are rising statewide to pay for repairs. If the trend continues, water bills will be unaffordable in five years for 1 in 3 Michigan households, according to a 2017 study from Michigan State University.
Nationally, water systems need $473 billion in investments in the next 20 years, while nearly 20 percent of U.S. roads are in poor shape, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
Can the feds help without raising taxes or blowing a deficit already projected at $1.1 trillion this year?
How will you safeguard the Great Lakes?
If there’s one defining bipartisan issue in Michigan, it’s safeguarding the lakes.
For three years, Trump has threatened to eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which pays to restore wetlands and cleanups. But each year, howls from lawmakers from both parties caused him to relent.
On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a six-item “Great Lakes 2020 Presidential Agenda” aimed at persuading presidential candidates to back measures to protect the lakes. Four other Democratic governors signed onto the platform, which touches on topics ranging from fixing the region’s deteriorating drinking water systems to blocking more havoc-wreaking invasive species from entering the lakes.
Kumbayas notwithstanding, plenty of threats remain to Great Lakes Basin waterways that likely require federal policy solutions. Among the issues:
Continued funding to prevent invasive Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes;
Are protections adequate to prevent massive water diversions such as electronics manufacturer Foxconn’s plan to suck 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan;
A lack of federal standards defining toxic limits of PFAS, common chemicals that increasingly are befouling waters;
The U.S. Air Force’s pace in cleaning contaminated bases such as the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County, where PFAS from firefighting foam seeped into groundwater,
Climate change, which some scientists say is spurring wild, unpredictable swings in lake levels that could threaten shoreline communities
Can immigration policy help Michigan grow?
Not long ago, a bipartisan group of political leaders eyed immigration as a way to expand Michigan’s population, which at 9.9 million is virtually unchanged from 2000. Last year alone, over 16,700 more people left Michigan than moved here, according to the U.S. Census.
Stagnation stresses public finances, economic development and housing markets, so Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan launched a campaign in 2014 to attract 50,000 skilled immigrants to Detroit to spur the economy and create jobs.
The effort went nowhere, but immigration champions are calling for the creation of so-called heartland visas to direct immigrants to struggling areas such as northern Michigan, while others advocate lifting caps on visas for highly skilled workers.
“Immigration can be a real solution rather than be a cause of division,” said Steve Tobocman, a former state representative and director of Global Detroit, a pro-immigration nonprofit.
“It needs to be treated and framed as an economic issue, rather than simply a social justice one.”
How can you support manufacturing jobs vital to Michigan?
If there’s any gimme of the debate, it’s that candidates will be pressed on their policies on autos and trade, which are vital to Detroit and Michigan, where manufacturing accounts for 14 percent of the state workforce.
Trump won the presidency in part by wooing blue-collar Midwestern workers, a traditional Democratic constituency, who are fed up with trade policies and global economics that make it profitable to ship jobs overseas.
One big question for Democrats: Can you support trade policies favored by Michigan automakers without harming domestic manufacturing? It’s an issue that U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, highlighted during the first debate while criticizing Trump and General Motors for the automaker’s decision to close a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, this year.
Trump wants Congress to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with a new pact (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) that requires 40 to 45 percent of cars’ contents to be made by workers making at least $16 an hour and increase to 75 percent from 62.5 percent the percentage of car parts that must come from the United States, Canada or Mexico to be exempt from 2.5 percent duties.
Other big manufacturing issues: Trump’s threats of high tariffs on imported autos; last year’s rollback of vehicle emissions standards; and whether the United States should abide by the Paris Agreement to combat climate change by rolling back emissions and carbon dioxide (Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2017).
Can the federal government prevent the next housing crisis?
The last housing crisis, the subprime mortgage meltdown, drove the world economy to the brink. The next one could dramatically increase homelessness, consumer groups warn.
Affordable housing – homes whose costs constitute less than 30 percent of a family’s income – already is becoming scarce, and Michigan will face a 150,000 shortage of affordable units by 2045, according to a report from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
In Detroit, average housing costs already constitute almost 50 percent of the city’s median income, and nearly half of the city’s 22,000 affordable housing units are set to expire by 2023 when tax credits to keep rents low end, according to a May report from the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing anti-poverty nonprofit.
While local markets play a huge role in housing costs, so too does the federal government, which administers programs for down-payment assistance and whose U.S. Housing and Urban Development department doles out $20 billion in housing vouchers for low-income families and sets policies on subsidized housing.
Under the leadership of Dr. Ben Carson, a Detroit native, the federal government had plans (since scrapped) to raise rents for the most needy and roll back rent caps for 4.5 million families in federal voucher and public housing programs (including 150,000 in Michigan.)
Bridge reporter Jim Malewitz contributed to this report