The race for Michigan’s governorship will be hotly contested this November, as outgoing Governor Rick Snyder finishes his second and final term, and multiple candidates on both sides battle to be the next chief executive of the state.
Grit Post has kept a close eye on the race, exclusively reporting on allegations that Shri Thanedar failed to honor contracts with paid staffers, and covering Abdul El-Sayed’s take on resolving the gutting of net neutrality by creating a public internet utility.
The Thursday night debate hosted by WDIV had candidates often approaching the questions from their own perspectives. Thanedar is a businessman focused on job creation. El-Sayed was Health Director for Detroit, and came at questions from the perspective of medicine and public administration. Gretchen Whitmer — former minority leader of the Michigan state senate — touted her legislative expertise.
From WDIV, the local NBC affiliate and host of the debate, a poll dramatically favored Abdul El-Sayed as winner of the debate.
WDIV cited comments they were seeing about people switching from Whitmer to El-Sayed, something that one staffer had called “a challenge” earlier in the campaign.
In post-debate interviews, Whitmer was asked if she would pivot on any policy positions based on popular reaction to her debate performance, and she responded “I do not play games.” She also said she wasn’t a centrist, she was a progressive. Which would make all three candidates nominally progressive.
El-Sayed also said he wasn’t going to change his positions, even knowing he’d won WDIV’s “hot-take” poll. “We know what we believe”, he said.
And despite being a distant third in WDIV’s poll, Thanedar said he won the debate. He reiterated his “jobs” message saying he was the only job creator.
“Polls will come and go,” said Thanedar. “I expect to make history and shock the world by winning the Democratic nomination.”
You can see my instant feedback here, but let’s dive deep on a few central points of the debate. Some things, like the case to be made for taxes and the history of education disinvestment that’s led to teacher protests, could easily be their own article, but for the sake of time we’ll distill to some of the things people will be talking about, and the things they ought to be talking about, until the August 7th primary.
— Katelyn Kivel (@KatelynKivel) July 20, 2018
(Though, I do want to make a quick shout-out to the phrase “De-DeVossing” for improving the way educators are treated in America. Betsy DeVos is a Michigander, after all, so it seems right that term would be born in a Michigan debate.)
1. Those Damn Darn Michigan Roads
Something that was almost instantly a sound bite that will play until August 7th was El-Sayed saying “fix the darn roads.” This was because “fix the damn roads” is a mantra of Whitmer. In this one exchange was a lot to unpack.
First, the roads. This is a perennial issue in Michigan. It’s been a huge issue for Michigan voters for ages. There are reasons aplenty for this issue, but it’s something that’s deeply ingrained in Michigan politics. No one can run for office without a boiler-plate “fix the roads” platform plank, and the fact that they’re still in need of repair shows how much actually gets done. That frustration led Gretchen Whitmer to say “Fix the damn roads.”
Whitmer likened the money you pay to fix your car to a tax caused by the lack of infrastructure spending in Michigan, and plans to supplement that spending with a gas tax have failed. The regressive nature of gas taxes is hotly debated, but automotive repair forced by decaying infrastructure is distributed in an even more regressive fashion, as used cars are cheaper, but far more susceptible to wear due to age.
Then, though, there’s the question of civility in political discourse. El-Sayed is a firebrand, taking both his debate rebuttals and his closing statement to lob haymakers at his opponents. He has called out his Democratic rivals on numerous occasions, like their failure to attend a Muslim-American forum. By changing “damn” to “darn” he acknowledged civility in the debate. It was a meaningful hat-tip, especially after Whitmer hit him for attacks against her in a civility discussion.
We have a president who calls poor nations “shitholes” and boasts about sexually assaulting women. That incivility is ratcheting up, not down. It was a small way to acknowledge that maybe campaign slogans aren’t the right place for even minor vulgarities. But from a young, fiery candidate this shows a club in his bag that reminds viewers that civility doesn’t have to mean taking things lying down.
2. The Difference Between Jobs and Poverty
One question that came up in the debate was a “magic wand” scenario. If you could wave a magic wand, a moderator proposed, and fix one thing to make the state better, what would it be? El-Sayed said poverty. Whitmer said jobs. While those two sound the same, they’re fantastically different.
Grit Post has cautioned about coming recessions and talked about radical solutions like basic income in the past. Basic income addresses poverty, not joblessness. Social safety net programs as they currently exist address poverty, not joblessness. And when it’s next to impossible to afford rent on minimum wage, addressing joblessness does not resolve poverty.
The fact that El-Sayed said he would resolve poverty followed by the narrower resolution of joblessness posed by Whitmer illustrates a difference in vision between the two candidates. While it can be argued that El-Sayed is addressing the symptom and not the cause, Whitmer’s addressing the cause fails to alleviate the symptom.
And it’s almost inevitable that in the next decade, which a new Governor would need to prepare Michigan to weather, half of American jobs will disappear.
3. Medicare for (Almost) All
One of the core planks of El-Sayed’s platform is Michicare, a single-payer healthcare proposal funded through a graduated payroll tax. Thanedar came out in favor for Medicare-for-All plans as well, although he prefers it at a federal level he left the door open for state level implementation.
El-Sayed also thinks Michicare or other single-payer options would reduce car insurance costs which are the highest in the nation, as Michigan insurance policies typically include coverage for automotive-related personal injury.
Whitmer talked about expanding enrollment in the existing healthcare infrastructure instead. The support for universal healthcare proposals is considered a litmus test for anyone calling themselves progressive. This was one of Whitmer’s bigger flaws in the debate. By opposing it, Whitmer moved toward the center in a way not even Thanedar would, and he almost ran as a Republican.
This doesn’t play well for Whitmer, who says single-payer is unrealistic. Several times in the debate she was tagged with her connection to corporate interests and The Intercept has painted her as a loyalist to major insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield.
4. A Post-Roe World
Honestly, in a debate often framed around why a particular perspective matters in the Michigan governorship, this was the question that felt most raw and personal.
It wasn’t really a thought most states have wrestled with on such a grand scale since Roe, but with the appointment of a replacement for pro-Roe retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, this gets more complicated. The likely replacement, nominee Brett Kavanaugh, has an ardently anti-Roe record.
If Roe is overturned, the allowance or banning of abortion becomes a state issue.
El-Sayed talked about his interactions with Roe as a doctor.
“When I was in medical school I had the privilege of sitting with a young woman just about my age making a very serious decision about whether or not to she wanted undergo an abortion,” he said. “I learned then and there that this is always a hard decision, but this is always an individual decision.”
El-Sayed said that from this perspective, as the medical professional, it isn’t just about protecting the right to have that choice, but empowering people to make the right choice for them. To that end, he discussed the need to provide better resources for both pre-conception and post-conception family planning, and redressing the sad fact that the city of Detroit has only one Planned Parenthood.
Whitmer’s story was even more raw, though.
“When women’s health was under attack, I went to the microphone and shared the most personal story of my life, I talked about being a rape survivor,” she said. “Women’s voices were being cut out of the deliberation. They didn’t even have a single committee hearing. And I went to the microphone and I said Me Too and I did it so that my daughters don’t have to.”
Whitmer talked about the cultural movement around #MeToo and the Nassar case holding a Michigan university to account. Whitmer said as governor, she would push an amendment to Michigan’s constitution to ensure a woman’s right to choose.
Thanedar seemed blindsided by the question but said the government should not get between a woman and her doctor.
5. Forgiveness for Marijuana Crimes
Every single candidate agreed on a few things. That it was worth discussing allowing sports gambling, that current governor Rick Snyder was a real leader in accepting Obama-era Medicaid expansion and that likely Republican candidate Attorney General Bill Schuette is not a good choice for Michigan’s future.
One of the big issues was the proposal to allow recreational marijuana in Michigan that will be voted on in November. Schuette led the charge against legalization of medical marijuana a decade ago, and none of the Democrats would side with him. But all the candidates went a step farther.
To a person, all three spoke about clemency for people convicted of marijuana charges.
This isn’t unheard of. California took the same approach when they legalized recreational marijuana. And the way convictions related to pot are carried out and laws are enforced show a massive racial bias. And Michigan, home of Detroit, should absolutely consider righting this particular racial wrong.
Thanedar wanted to regulate marijuana like alcohol. El-Sayed pointed to a lack of research available on how to use recreational marijuana well, and thinks that Michigan could lead the nation on studying how recreational marijuana is used and what its use means for average people.
6. No Candidate for Old White Men
Something Thanedar said drew attention to who wasn’t in the stage: white men. The candidates for governor are an immigrant from India, a woman and a Muslim of Egyptian descent.
"If Michigan wants something different, Michigan must elect someone different." @ShriForMI gives a reminder that whoever the Dem candidate will be, they're a minority. No Democrat candidate is a straight, white man. #midemdebate
— Katelyn Kivel (@KatelynKivel) July 20, 2018
Democrats are diversity-oriented party. This is especially stark in Michigan, where all the Republican candidates are white men. While it isn’t an issue it is a matter of perspective, and this debate was all about perspectives. If the Michigan gubernatorial election is about what perspective and voice will benefit Michigan most, the Democrats field three very different candidates, all of whom have a different frame from the current administration.
The presumptive nominee in the Republican field is the attorney general of the current administration. An administration that usurped municipal authority and poisoned a city. Whitmer fought the emergency financial manager laws that wrested control from local elected officials and El-Sayed helped rebuild the city of Detroit’s health department in the wake of the financial devastation left by the emergency manager.
This debate was about policies, experience and frames of reference. And this one line drew attention to how dramatic the difference is between the Republican and Democratic fields.
7. Race and Gender Didn’t Matter?
Lastly, a stark contrast to the diverse stage that the Democratic debate represented. Something troubling came in Gretchen Whitmer’s closing statement. She made a misstep that immediately stuck out as a future land mine for her campaign going forward.
“This was the place that people used to come to for opportunity. We invented the middle class,” said Whitmer. “It didn’t matter your race, or your religion, or your gender because the labor movement meant you could get a job right here.”
It didn’t matter what someone’s race was? The Detroit Riots of 1967 disagree. The history of race in Michigan is a fraught struggle, and the say that good jobs were waiting ignores the systemic problems that couldn’t not have impacted people of color. Labor unions are still dealing with entrenched racism today.
It didn’t matter what someone’s gender was? The United Auto Workers, one of Michigan’s most powerful unions that built the middle class, refused to train women until all men were employed. Unions allowed women to be banned from jobs as bus drivers or typesetters with little more than a shrug. Equal pay is still a fight we face in 2018.
For a candidate who was deeply rehearsed to have made this shocking gaffe is actually a potential disaster that wasn’t picked up by WDIV’s commentators in the immediate aftermath of the debate, but certainly won’t play well to the party that tries to represent the marginalized.
Immediate reactions that WDIV collected after the debate showed that a landslide was brewing for El-Sayed, at least in debate response. He came in first by a healthy margin with Thanedar scraping the bottom by quite a distance. Given where polls were a few months ago, that’s a topsy-turvy world.
And while Whitmer seemed to have the cool grace of someone who had the nomination on lock and was just putting up with the whole primary process, El-Sayed seemed vital and energetic. In presentation he certainly won, and his snappy one-liners and soundbites were the stuff news directors all across Michigan will favor.
Thanedar was there too.
But when diving in to the actual discussions and policy talk of the debate and not just the presentation, El-Sayed actually performed even better. He came to offer specific policies and his stories of personal experience and frames of perspective actually related well to the issues he was discussing.
Worse for Whitmer, she only made the things people scrutinize her for, like her close ties to health insurers, stand out more. While El-Sayed harps about her campaign contributions, it is her refusal to join the others in supporting single-payer that illustrate it. She insisted after the debate that she was a progressive, but through-and-through where she actually gave policy prescriptions, they were familiar and safe centrist positions.
And Thanedar was also present.
In general, Whitmer played the debate toward a general election geared toward flipping disaffected or unenthused Trump voters who might paint her as Hillary without the problems, while El-Sayed played to a base that’s frustrated with watered-down policies and appealing to the least enticing action. He’s reaching out to voters who want to support a cause with his stances and his energy.
Thanedar didn’t seem to really make ground toward anything. His lack of direction and utterly nervous presentation showed a guy who thought he had this sown up who is watching his campaign start to collapse under the weight of constant scandal and invitations he makes to draw parallels between him and Trump — the wealthy outsider who will shake things up with a ton of baggage.
Effectively, this debate showed the changing trajectory of the race, and big bets between the two remaining contenders over who will show up in August, and being able to turn out the numbers in November.
Michigan votes August 7th.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.