Truth Squad | Fact-checking the first Michigan governor’s debate

Schuette and Whitmer

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and former Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer debated health care, roads, education and other pressing state policy issues Friday night during the first gubernatorial debate at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids. (Nick Smith/WOOD TV8)

November 6: Gretchen Whitmer projected winner in Michigan governor race
Related: Truth Squad | Fact-checking Michigan’s second, final governor’s debate

In a debate loaded with canned talking points that touched on a flurry of subjects, Bridge Magazine is focusing on the accuracy of the rhetoric flung between Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette in their Friday clash in Grand Rapids, the first of two in the Michigan race for governor.

Schuette, the state’s attorney general since 2011, criticized Whitmer for dropping the ball on prosecuting sex predator Larry Nassar, and predicted her plan to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads would “raise your darn taxes.”

Whitmer, a former state senator from East Lansing, went after Schuette for filing nine lawsuits that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, and said he dragged his feet on responding to lead and other contaminants in Michiganders’ drinking water.

Bridge and Truth Squad already addressed many of these attacks by the candidates and their proxies during the 2018 campaign. Indeed, at one point, Whitmer, in mocking Schuette’s refusal to say how much fixing Michigan roads would cost, paraphrased a line from a recent Bridge article, saying: “Bill Schuette’s plan is two steps: Get elected and figure it out.”

But with only a few weeks until the Nov. 6 election, plenty of voters are beginning to pay close attention to the governor’s race after eight years under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

With each candidate given only one minute to answer questions, the hour-long debate, hosted by WOOD-TV, skittered shallowly across topics from the Flint water crisis, to K-12 education, roads, the Larry Nassar case, U.S. immigration policy and a weird video outtake of Schuette from nearly three decades ago that surfaced this week.

Here are the facts behind four contentious charges and claims Friday night:

CLAIM: Schuette supports preserving health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions

Schuette: “I filed lawsuits because of (the ACA’s) unconstitutionality. But every time I did that, I said I was in favor of maintaining coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.”

Whitmer: “If Bill Schuette is our next governor, we should believe what he has done, not what he has said. And what he has done is file nine lawsuits — nine lawsuits — to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

CONTEXT: WOOD-TV debate moderator Rick Albin asked the candidates whether, as governor, they would keep, change or eliminate the Healthy Michigan Plan. That’s the state’s Medicaid expansion program that has extended health coverage to more than 600,000 low-income adults.

FACTS: Schuette joined at least nine lawsuits as Attorney General to block the Affordable Care Act. But as Truth Squad previously noted, Schuette’s office at the time said the lawsuits were about what he believed were the ACA’s constitutional overreach and the need to protect religious freedom, not about ripping away health care.

Still, if successful, a weakened federal health law would have affected health benefits for people with pre-existing conditions. And while Schuette has said since at least 2014 that he supports coverage for people living with pre-existing conditions, his backing of lawsuits opposing the Affordable Care Act, with no concrete plan that would have protected those patients if the act had been struck down, has opened him to legitimate criticism on this topic.

CLAIM: Whitmer failed to prosecute Larry Nassar on sexual assault charges

Schuette: “Gretchen Whitmer failed to do her job. She did not file charges against Larry Nassar. And she did not refer them to me.”

Whitmer: “I did my job, and I did not put my political future ahead of the interest of the survivors.”

CONTEXT: Schuette and Whitmer were asked what the state could do to prevent another Larry Nassar from preying on Michigan girls and women.

FACTS: Truth Squad has twice sifted through the rhetoric on the Nassar case. Both Schuette and Whitmer were involved in prosecuting Nassar, a former Michigan State University physician who was convicted of sexually abusing girls and young women under the guise of medical treatment — Schuette as Attorney General, Whitmer as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016.

Both times, Truth Squad has ruled that the evidence in the case does not support the accusation that Whitmer balked at the opportunity to prosecute Nassar. The person who made that accusation — MSU police Chief Jim Dunlap — has declined to elaborate. Emails between their offices suggest Whitmer was waiting for more evidence before making a charging decision on sexual assault charges. Dunlap instead decided to take the case to Schuette’s office as attorney general.

Nassar was convicted both on child pornography charges brought after Whitmer’s office issued a search warrant, and on the sexual assault charges later brought by Schuette’s office.

In a recent news conference, Whitmer told reporters: “I referred (the Nassar case) to my political opponent because it was the right thing to do,” explaining that because assault victims were coming forward from multiple counties, the attorney general’s office was the proper venue for prosecution.

In fact, it was Dunlap of MSU Police, not Whitmer’s office, that took the cases to Schuette in 2016. Whitmer seems to concede as much, but contends that it was done with her blessing.

CLAIM: Whitmer wants to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE

Schuette: “Gretchen Whitmer did say she wanted to disband ICE, and it’s an extreme approach. … (Running mate Garlin Gilchrist) is a person that she selected to be lieutenant governor, and this is a guy with anti-Semitic rants, anti-Israel rants and anti-evangelical rants and pro-Hamas support, which is a terrorist group.”

Whitmer: “I know Bill Schuette is desperately trying to fix his place in the polls by throwing all this nonsense out there. … I’ve never said we should abolish ICE.”

CONTEXT: Schuette and Whitmer were asked whether Michigan State Police should cooperate with ICE in a segment about U.S. immigration policy.

FACTS: Both Schuette and the Michigan Republican Party have attacked Whitmer and her running mate, Garlin Gilchrist II, as sympathizing with terrorists and opposing efforts to enforce immigration laws.

The attacks surfaced from two places: First, the discovery of 9-year-old tweets from Gilchrist that were critical of Israel and called Hamas “a legitimately elected party that only rose to power b/c of Israeli aggression & Western complicity/enablement.” Second, a Republican campaign tracker asked Whitmer on video if ICE should be abolished; at the end, Whitmer nodded her head and walked away.

Both Whitmer and Gilchrist later clarified their positions; Whitmer said she is not advocating to disband ICE.

Truth Squad called the attacks misleading. Noting that both incidents opened the Democratic ticket to attack, Truth Squad concluded that this issue did little to educate Michigan voters on the most important state policy issues facing the candidates for governor.

CLAIM: Bill Schuette signed off on the ill-fated Flint water plan and then ignored complaints about the water for two years

Whitmer: Said Flint residents called Schuette’s office 15 times and were ignored, and that he signed off on the initial order that allowed officials to switch Flint’s drinking water source to the Flint River. “But for that, maybe (Flint’s children) wouldn’t have been brushing their teeth that long with leaded water.”

Schuette: “I make no apologies for those people that complain that I filed charges in Flint. You know why? Because 12 people died and thousands of kids were poisoned, and I’m going to make sure that there’s accountability.”

CONTEXT: The candidates were asked how they, as governor, would handle the recovery in Flint.

Whitmer echoed charges made in a recent attack ad by the Democratic Governors Association PAC accusing Schuette, as Attorney General, of “ignoring 15 complaints” made to his office over two years about foul-smelling water in Flint and not launching a criminal investigation until January 2016, 10 days after Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city. Whitmer also said Friday that had his office not signed off on the original 2014 water plan, the lead disaster that followed may have been averted.

FACTS: Whitmer’s attack is a mix of facts, opinion and misleading spin. Yes, someone in Schuette’s office signed off on a March 2014 administrative consent order with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that helped clear the way for switching the city’s drinking water to the Flint River. But as Detroit Free Press reporting revealed, the AG official merely signed off on the form of the order, not on its substance.

Schuette’s office denies it “ignored” the 15 complaints, saying it sent them to DEQ to address. Nevertheless, it’s true that even though Schuette’s office prosecuted more than a dozen local and state officials for their role in the crisis, his office did wait a year or more after the first complaints came in, and several months after a Virginia Tech study raised alarms about the water and another study, by Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, found widespread elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children that it tied to the water switch.

Related: 2018 Bridge Michigan Voter Guide: Links to our relevant election coverage

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B Murphy
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 6:48am

Thank you for your efforts to clarify and verify the truthfulness in the candidates’ statements. The debate and your article helped me determine that Schuette cannot be trusted to protect Michigan residents. The Flint water crisis information is enough for me to see where my vote should fall.

Kevin Grand
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 9:51am

First off, this debate was a pathetic joke.

As mentioned above, the comments were nothing more than just talking points with very little substance. In a good debate, those participating should at least provide something more than what we saw last night, not sound bites we've already heard ad nauseam!

Second, where are the other candidates?

I didn't see Todd Schleiger, Keith Butkovich, Jennifer Kurland, or even Bill Gelineau. I understand that we won't be seeing them on Channel 4 in about two weeks either.

Why is the media taking it upon itself to decide just who and who isn't gubernatorial material?

If the media wants yet another example on why its lost just about all of its credibility, there is a large part of the answer.

Sun, 10/14/2018 - 8:31am

100% agree

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 2:42pm

Oh look, it's the guy who doesn't understand our awful electoral system or basic math

Jeff Mercer
Sun, 10/21/2018 - 8:29am

It would be great if they could get on a debate, but the two party system is fully in force and until we all realize all the information on the candidates is already at your finger tips, via the net, we will probably still have are voices squashed, because most people don't realize there are other people in the race. I think a good source for getting all your candidates, and some basic information is

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 10:18am

who did Nassar know back when he was only a student that the east lansing cops would NOT file charges against him>>> And WHY did John Engler try to pay off several of his victoms???

S Welsford
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 10:48am

Schutte's (a) mishandling of the Flint crisis and (b) filing lawsuits to block ACA for religious (contraception) reasons thereby denying people with pre-existing conditions coverage tells me everything I need to know.

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 10:48am

Thank you for your coverage. The debate and Bridge comments helped me determine that Whitmer can not be trusted to protect all Michigan residents.

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 4:21pm

Based on what?

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 11:59am

How is it this hadn't come to light sooner by the means of the health department? The children that go and get tested for WIC should have pulled results quicker than anything that something big was up???

John Anthony La...
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 12:10pm

How much would 30 minutes of air time on WOOD-TV cost Whitmer or Schuette if they had to buy it, rather than being given it to the exclusion of the other four candidates on the ballot? Bi-partisan is still partisan; non-partisan is something else. That "debate" was effectively a contribution to the two, and should be treated as such.

It certainly wasn't news -- not in the sense of bringing voters any new information. If WOOD had wanted to do that and still be exclusive, it would have done better to focus on the alternatives. And considering that Gallup's latest nationwide poll shows 26% of us identify ourselves as Republicans, 27% as Democrats, and 44% as neither -- and that in Michigan we don't have to pick a party when we register to vote, so "neither" may be a majority here -- there's an audience for that. But the most news-worthy event would have been to have all six candidates together, sharing the stage as they share the ballot -- and let the votes fall where they may.

Sun, 10/14/2018 - 12:46am

I'm not sure the citizens of Michigan get it yet. Ask yourself several questions. Do you feel the Republicans have represented your viewpoints and interests for the last 8 years? Did you feel the Republican increased tax on retirees was fair while giving businesses a 2.1 Million $ tax break - reduction?
Do you feel The Republican use of K-12 allocated money instead to colleges was the right thing to do?
Do you feel the Republican delay in acknowledging the Flint drinking water lead poisoning was the right thing to do?
During the Flint water crisis do you feel the Republican Governor hiring outside lawyers at over $1 million of taxpayer expense was the right thing to do?
Do you feel the Republicans changing the DEQ's rights to manage their department fairly was the right thing to do?

Sun, 10/14/2018 - 8:37am

Questions for you, should retirees, the single wealthiest demographic group be allowed tax free income when everyone else is expected to pay them?
Should I as a business owner have to pay income tax twice, once as business revenue (under old SBT) and then again as my personal income?
Should we be conscious of the levels we tax anyone or anything (businesses, wealthy, retirees) or can we just go as high as we want without any adverse results or cares?
Should the state be required to come in and bail out mismanaged municipalities or can can just let them completely collapse without state rescue ending the need for an emergency financial manager?
Should the communities colleges be cut off from state aid? (As I recall your side is wanting to make to them 13th and 14th grades),
Are any departments (the DNR) allowed to remain the same after an administration change? Will the DNR be changed if we go from Snyder to Whitmer? Or is it only not allowed to change if you liked the previous admin and don't the successor admin?
Please let us know. Thank you.

John P
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 2:36pm

Zeke, there is no "retirement" tax. There is "income tax" which finally is fairly experienced by ALL Michiganders. Public sector workers getting pensions are often in their mid to late 50's. So imagine 3 Michigan 57 year-olds. One is still working 2500 hours per year and pays tax. One retired early after saving and investing (no pension), he pays tax; but the guy not working and receiving a pension paid by the other two; is the only one that should not contribute to our states well being, roads, K-12 education etc. We should all pay income tax, regardless of the source of income. Get over it.

Thomas E Graham
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 8:31am

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 made it illegal for insurance providers to deny anyone for a preexisting condition.
Even without the PPACA of 2010, preexisting conditions were still covered by ALL medical insurance. Inferring the PPACA somehow made this happen 14 years later it false.

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 2:51pm

What's that? Thomas misrepresenting the truth? Surely not:

"...If you had group insurance and lost it, then HIPAA prevents the individual plans from denying you coverage as long as you had continuous coverage for 18 months. However, HIPAA can’t protect you if you only have an individual insurance plan, so an insurance company can still refuse to give you insurance based on a pre-existing condition…that is until 2014 at which point, the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) will go into full effect and health insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. No matter what."

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 12:41pm

The debate showed me that all Schuette can do is make wild and inaccurate statements based on no factual information and he provided none. Anyone notice he never brought up Trump do to Trumps poor approval ratings in Michigan? Schuette has never done a thing for Michigan and the only reason he is where he is is due to inheriting 26 million from his mother who marred the then Dow CEO. Schuette still claims however that he is a "self made man"!!!! What he showed me is that being governor is hopelessly over his head and if elected he will only be a purchased vote/ and representative for the Devos family. Its time for change. Bill its time to retire.