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

Schuette and Whitmer

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Whitmer, a former state senator from East Lansing, went after Schuette for filing nine lawsuits that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, and said he dragged his feet on responding to lead and other contaminants in Michiganders’ drinking water.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