Hey, CNN: Ask Democratic candidates these 6 Michigan policy questions

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Twenty Democratic presidential candidates are debating in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday, with 10 candidates facing off each night. They should be forced to answer questions about Michigan’s intractable problems. (Shutterstock image)

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.

That debate still resonates in Michigan, where segregation and a vast achievement gap between white and black students remain. 

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. 

Related: Before debates, Gretchen Whitmer urges Democrats to protect Great Lakes

Kumbayas notwithstanding, plenty of threats remain to Great Lakes Basin waterways that likely require federal policy solutions. Among the issues: 

Can immigration policy help Michigan grow?

Nationally, the debate about immigration is focused on undocumented workers, asylum restrictions at the southern border, family separations and conditions at immigrant detention centers.

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 

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 7:15am

While I see these "debates" as nothing more than a dog and pony show over who can give away the most stuff as quickly as possible, I do have this one serious question that I'd loved to see asked of each and every one of the candidates participating (with a quick follow up): Have you read the US Constitution?

Those who have answered in the affirmative, here's my follow up: Where does the necessary authority exist in the office that you are running for to implement the programs/policies that you're proposing?

I'll venture a guess that you'll see more than a few blank stares/uncomfortably long silent pauses after they are all asked THAT question.

Erwin Haas
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 8:12am

Kevin, I love your comments.
And I didn't bother reading the sentimental soporifics in the article.

Barry Visel
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 8:47am

Right on!
Take education, for example. It’s not listed in Article 1, Section 8, or in any amendments, but it somehow snuck through using the commerce and taxation clauses...and that’s how the slippery slope begins.

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 9:52am

Hey look everybody, it's another libertarian with no grasp of history or economics, chastising people who understand the global economy in 21st for not wanting America to become mired in a second Gilded Age while the world burns around us

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 11:09am

Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety. Liberals had more gray matter at least in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity.
The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place.

In other words that conservative party can understand they run on fear.


Tue, 07/30/2019 - 11:42am

The most fearmongoring comes from the Dems. Hands down. If someone has a different opinion than them guess what we get accused of ? Racist. If they can't handle the truth, out comes name calling. I believe to be a serious legit question, If you have been in control of a city that has produced proverty and uneducated children with billions of dollars to help your city. Why has it not improved after 20+ years? All these failed social programs and they still want to throw money at them. Who is actually getting paid?

Scott Brodie
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 4:55pm

Why is it that the Blue States, with Democratic leaders, and higher taxes rank higher in State rankings?
US News and World Report rated Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Minnesota in the top 12. Guess who is in the bottom?
Red states, Arkansas, South Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, Alabama, all landed in the bottom 10. What conclusion should I draw from that?
Inner city Schools can do well, Look at Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 12:56pm

And precisely what does.that have to do with my question, Don?

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:17am


I have been working in stress management education for years and have not seen stress levels as high as they are today. Fear and anger are the stress emotions and I understand your point about conservatives running on fear. This is the current presidents strategy. Keep people in fear and anger.

Judging from the responses you received, you pushed some of the “usual responders” buttons. Of course their response is to attack you. I would not spend much time with this crowd. The sitting president and his followers are irrelevant to solving problems or moving our country. These men are know it all conservatives who have positioned MI to be at the bottom of states in regards to all quality of life issues. MI is on a race to the bottom.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:17am


I have been working in stress management education for years and have not seen stress levels as high as they are today. Fear and anger are the stress emotions and I understand your point about conservatives running on fear. This is the current presidents strategy. Keep people in fear and anger.

Judging from the responses you received, you pushed some of the “usual responders” buttons. Of course their response is to attack you. I would not spend much time with this crowd. The sitting president and his followers are irrelevant to solving problems or moving our country. These men are know it all conservatives who have positioned MI to be at the bottom of states in regards to all quality of life issues. MI is on a race to the bottom.

Scott Brodie
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 4:37pm

Kevin, I'll be glad to discuss Constitutional Powers as soon as Congress starts putting a stop to undeclared wars. Tim Walberg believes that any intervention in the Middle East is covered by the 2001 AUMF against Al Queda and Afghanistan. When I asked him about our intervention in Syria, 17 years after the attack on the US, he said that it was all the same.

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 7:50am

Let's get specific for all the faux environmentalists over there. What is your position on the Chicago Sanitary Canal? It is both an unnatural diversion of great lakes water and the main conduit for invasive Asian Carp, a Twofer! Obama, Nessell and Whitmer showed us what they are. Trump doesn't claim the mantle. How about these guys waving that flag or is it only killing the Petrol industry that they really care about too?

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 8:09am

Education. Washington DC Schools, (yes the ones in your neighborhood!), receive approx$28,000 per student, twice the national average, and trail the National averages by a wide margin. Why should we believe the solution to our kids education and schools 100's and 1000's of miles away, will come from Democratic politicians when you can't fix the ones you see everyday?

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 11:11am

After over 28 years of republican control of the state of Michigan you are blaming the democrats?????
You in Russia or what????

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 12:36am

I don't think it is about blaming, but about how where the Democrats have direct control, extended periods and spent more money they even you think is necessary they have the most disappointing student performances. D.C. is just one of the glaring examples, and a place where many of the candidates are in most days and where they work.

Scott Brodie
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 5:07pm

How much control does DC have over their own policies? Its a Federal City, if Congress wanted to use it as a laboratory for education innovation, it could.

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 8:39am

Immigration. On our southern border our good will and immigration laws are being made a mockery of, to be gamed and used every way possible and then flaunted when all else fails by those seeking admittance and those helping them. After all this those who remain illegally are rewarded with free food, education and healthcare. Why would you expect them not to come here? Why do you not wish to allow tax paying US citizens the same level of legal leniency when it comes to our laws? IRS, EPA etc etc.

If everyone with any claim of hardship has the right and should come here and use our asylum laws to gain admittance, there's a billion people in Asia and Africa that should come also. Since they have the "right", What do you have against them? Shouldn't we offer them free transport, since they have the "right"??

James Louis
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 9:32am

"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."
This cannot be right or is expressed grammatically wrong: in public schools in Michigan the percentage of black students is not 90%. The only correct statement would be that in some schools the percentage is 90% and higher. It is likely that the percentage of African American students in public schools is slightly higher than the roughly 15% of the total population percentage but not 90%

Joel Kurth
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 9:40am

Hi thanks for reading. 

Perhaps it could have been phrased better: The statistic refers to fact that 40 percent of all of Michigan's black students are in predominantly black schools (ones that are 90 percent+ comprised of black students). Hope that clears it up.

John Q. Public
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 1:51pm

The sentence is correct as written, Joel. Mr. Louis is reading the relative clause, "...in which more than 90% of student bodies are black..." as non-essential when it is essential. If it were non-essential you would have indicated so with a comma.

Compare "Ten percent of sedans are parked in garages, which are designed for only one car." with "Ten percent of sedans are parked in garages which are designed for only one car."

Independent clause vs. predicate adjective.

Rita Mitchell
Tue, 07/30/2019 - 10:23am

Add to the list of environmental concerns: How will you move the country swiftly to use of renewable energy sources? Do you know that there is an oil pipeline in the most risky location in the Great Lakes? Getting Michigan onto renewables will support decommissioning Line 5 and add to the safety and health of our Great Lakes.

Scott Brodie
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 4:23pm

"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?"
Why ask? We have allowed Nestle to take 130,000,000 gallons per year from Mecosta, and if the new withdrawal limit is 400 gallons per minute, they will be taking 210,240,000 per year. Why are we asking about a measly 7 million gallons?

David Andrews
Sat, 08/03/2019 - 7:36am

I would rather the contestants be asked what they thought of the Constitution as a blueprint to actually govern the 50 sovereign states.

The six questions you proposed are nice questions; however, not one of your proposals were in the view of our founders, so each of those programs should belong either to the state or to individuals. Our founders rightfully excluded all of those programs from the purview of the Federal Government.