GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gubernatorial candidates Tudor Dixon and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer met for a debate hosted by WOOD TV8 Thursday, taking every opportunity to sling mud at one another while also trying to show voters they are the best choice to lead Michigan.
In her opening statement, Whitmer, the Democratic incumbent, listed some of the accomplishments of her administration, including signing Michigan’s largest education budget ever, signing down $14 billion in state debt and amassing a strong rainy day fund.
“I think tonight, you’re going to hear a lot of divisive rhetoric and a focus on the past from my opponent,” Whitmer said. “Here’s what separates us: I still believe there is more that unites us than divides us. I believe in our democracy. I believe in decency. And that’s what I’m going to focus on tonight and every minute I’m governor of this great state.”
Republican challenger Dixon characterized herself as a mother, wife, cancer survivor, worker and small business owner. She immediately took aim at Whitmer’s COVID-19 mitigation orders that closed businesses and mentioned her key platform issues of crime and education.
“I’m running for governor because, quite frankly, Gretchen Whitmer has let us down. The last four years have been disappointing at best,” Dixon said. “Everything is more expensive. Our communites are less safe. Our job creators struggle to create jobs and many are saying they think the American dream in the state of Michigan is dead. Our schools are getting worse and our roads haven’t been fixed.”
She said she wants to make Michigan “freer and more prosperous.”
Watch a replay of the debate in the video below.
The first question of the night asked the candidates to lay out their views on abortion, an issue that Michigan will vote on in November on the same ballot where the two candidates’ names will appear. If passed, Proposal 3 would enshrine reproductive rights, including the right to abortions, in the Michigan Constitution.
Whitmer said she supports the right to abortions and referenced the legal action she has taken to keep Michigan’s 1931 near-total abortion ban from being enforced.
“The only reason that law is not in effect right now is because of my lawsuit stopping it,” Whitmer said. “We know that our fundamental rights are very much at risk right now. I am fighting to protect our right to choose.”
She said she would vote yes on Proposal 3.
Dixon said she is pro-life, though she believes there should be an exception to protect the life of the mother. But she also said she recognizes that the matter will be decided by the people or in a courtroom.
“The governor doesn’t have the choice to go around a judge or a constitutional amendment,” Dixon said.
Dixon also attacked Whitmer, saying Whitmer was mischaracterizing her views on abortion and arguing Whitmer’s stance was “radical.”
In the very first question, both Whitmer and Dixon referred to the other as a liar.
The second question asked the candidates whether they would uphold the will of the voters if Proposal 3 passes — and polls suggest it will.
Dixon promised she would respect the will of the voters, again criticizing Whitmer for “going around” laws she disagrees with.
Whitmer also said she would accept the will of the people, though she noted that her lawsuit about the state’s 1931 ban would still have to be decided by the Michigan Supreme Court. She questioned Dixon’s assertion she would abide by the passage of Proposal 3, saying Dixon has already proven she doesn’t respect the outcome of elections because she had supported conspiracy theories about the November 2020 vote being “stolen.”
In rebuttal, Dixon listed a series of vetoes from Whitmer that she said hurt women, including one regarding housing for pregnant women and another on funding for pregnancy resource centers.
“She wants abortion to be your only option,” Dixon said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Whitmer said.
SCHOOL SAFETY AND PERFORMANCE
Asked how she would protect students’ safety and support their mental health, Whitmer touted “historic” investments in education — this year’s school budget is the state’s largest ever.
She added that she supports red-flag and secure storage gun laws that she argued could help combat school shootings and gun violence. Whitmer criticized Dixon’s support for gun rights, calling her “out of touch” and saying, “She’ll put the Second Amendment before second graders every time.”
Dixon said federal dollars should have been used to “harden” schools in accordance with 2018 recommendations from the Michigan State Police. She said Whitmer would not allow protections inside schools, referring to an armed adult.
“We know that’s the best-case scenario, is we have someone who can shoot down a shooter,” Dixon said. “She wants to make sure your kids are in a sitting duck zone.”
Asked about educational performance, Dixon went to one of her core platform issues: the reading level. Dixon said she would roll out programs for 25 hours of tutoring for each student. She said she would go back to basics: reading, writing and math.
Whitmer said the budget closed the funding gap between schools and referenced money that funded literacy programs and to attract and retain good teachers. She also said she supported individualized tutors.
Whitmer also criticized Dixon’s attachment to former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has spent her career supporting charter and private schools. Dixon said Whitmer opposes vouchers that would give parents more options for sending their kids to other schools. Whitmer said she doesn’t oppose private schools, but that as governor, it’s her job to take care of all kids.
Whitmer was asked, with the benefit of hindsight, what she would have done differently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been criticized by Republicans for mandates that required businesses and in-person schooling to close in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
The governor said she based her decisions on advice from experts and other governors and argued her actions saved lives. She said she was working through a crisis with lives on the line. She said that of course in hindsight there may have been things she would change, but she didn’t explain what.
Asked what she would have done if she was the governor, Dixon took the chance to attack Whitmer’s policies about COVID-19 patients in nursing homes. She said Whitmer tried to hide the cost of life based on those decisions. She also mentioned missteps in the state unemployment agency and Whitmer’s refusal to listen to calls to let students play sports.
“None of what my opponent just said is true,” Whitmer retorted.
She said Dixon spread conspiracy theories and spoke against masks. Whitmer said that if Dixon had been governor at the height of the pandemic, more people would have died.
“She’s completely dishonest, but she can’t be honest because she knows that her response was so completely horrendous,” Dixon said in response, criticizing Whitmer’s long closure of restaurants.
THE BUDGET AND ROAD FUNDING
Asked how she would spend the influx of federal COVID-19 relief dollars that has created a state budget surplus, Dixon said she would send it to schools, both for security and tutoring to improve students’ reading skills.
Whitmer referenced economic successes in small businesses, the automotive industry and the pharmaceutical industry. She said she has launched program to retrain workers for growing industries.
Dixon said a report Wednesday showed a loss of small businesses in Michigan and blamed her for Ford investing in plants elsewhere in the country.
“That’s ridiculous,” Whitmer rebutted again, saying Michigan is seeing job growth.
She criticized Dixon’s business past, saying the steel business Dixon previously worked for wasn’t paying its bill even when the industry was making large profits.
With the rise of electric vehicles, the candidates were asked about how Michigan could fund roads and infrastructure as gas tax revenues decline.
Whitmer was able to hit on her favorite campaign slogan of “fixing the damn roads.” She said drivers can see the evidence that she’s keeping her campaign promise.
She touted a bipartisan plan with the Legislature to fund infrastructure as well as federal dollars from the Biden administration. But she also noted that it will take time to overcome decades of underinvestment and recognized that the revenue distribution plan would have to be reworked.
Dixon called back to Whitmer’s promise in 2018 that she would not raise the gas taxes to pay road funding and then Whitmer’s pitch to raise that tax (which ultimately did not happen). Dixon called the construction projects a campaign stunt and said Whitmer is only making promises so people will vote for her.
CRIME AND GUNS
Crime is one of Dixon’s key campaign issues. She said Whitmer supports the spirit of movements to ‘defund the police.’
“It’s devastating to see the chief executive officer treat our police this way,” Dixon said.
She touted an endorsement by the largest police union in Michigan. She said she would put $1 billion into policing to support officers — in tools, training and mental health help — and encourage recruitment and retention.
Whitmer said as a former prosecutor, she has worked closely with police officers. She said her budgets have focused on supporting them in training, recruiting and pensions. She pointed to a bill she signed this week to fund road patrols. She said police and prosecutor groups are split on the governor’s race and that those who have broken to her side did so because they’ve seen what she has done.
Whitmer said her administration, led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, has made progress on combating racial biases in the justice system. She said training and close community connections are the way to bridge the divide.
“We need to support good cops. We’ve got to make sure communities are safe. We can and must do both,” Whitmer said.
Dixon said that difficult climate for police officers has led to fewer people seeking to join the profession in their communities. She said officers should be in schools to help kids feel comfortable with them.
Whitmer said Dixon has made rushes to judgment about officers’ actions. Dixon turned it around, saying Whitmer was the one rushing to judgement.
“I will always have (officers’) back,” Dixon said.
Dixon said one problem of crime was that people convicted of gun crimes were back out on the street too quickly and that county jails were overburdened with people who should be in state prisons on stronger charges.
“We need to make sure that we are tough on guns in this state,” Dixon said. “When we find someone that commits a gun crime, they need to be put away.”
Whitmer said she supports secure storage, background checks and red-flag laws. She said she has supported parole sweeps and worked to get illegal guns off the streets.
Dixon said Whitmer wants to take guns away from law-abiding citizens.
Whitmer said she has worked to support the economy by funding education programs and free or low-income child care. She said she supports repealing the pension tax, tripling the earned income tax credit and a pause on the gas tax.
Dixon said Whitmer previously said she would repeal the pension tax but did not in her first term. She criticized Whitmer’s high veto rate and said one of the things she vetoed was a gas tax holiday. Dixon said Whitmer’s opposition to Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac shows she’s not interested in keeping prices low. She said Whitmer’s stances were political rather than based in concern for people.
Whitmer said she vetoes bills that “play games” with Michigan residents, making promises of tax cuts that won’t go into effect for years. She promised honesty, solutions and bipartisanship.
AUTO INSURANCE REFORM
In the last few years, Michigan has implemented automotive insurance reform to its no-fault system, with the goal of lowering rates. A consequence was that some insurance companies cut payments for long-term care for catastrophic crash victims — though an appeals court recently said the insurers must keep providing pre-reform benefits.
Dixon agreed the contract insurers made with clients should be upheld. She said she would work with the Legislature to try to address unintended consequences of the reforms.
Whitmer also said that the people injured before the reforms should be entitled to all their benefits. She said she was willing to come to the table with the the Republican-led Legislature to find more solutions for those victims.
Dixon said Whitmer’s claims of bipartisanship were only lip service, again referencing her veto history. Whitmer said she was focused on solutions.
News 8 political reporter Rick Albin moderated the debate, asking the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger about the most important issues in Michigan, including posing some questions submitted by viewers. Each candidate got 60 seconds to answer a question and an automatic 30-second rebuttal to their opponent. Who got the first question was determined by blind drawing.
“This election is a choice about our future,” Whitmer said in her closing statement.
She said during “serious times,” people in Michigan deserve “leaders who can solve problems and work together to make your life a little bit better right now.”
She said she wanted to make sure Michigan could attract young talent to build their lives here, that women had the right to abortions, and that all people were respected and protected under the law.
Since Whitmer had the first word of the night, Dixon had the last.
“The governor would like you to forget how hard the last four years have been,” Dixon said.
She made last-minute references to frequent Republican talking points about gender and sexuality in schools and her own talking points about supporting police.
“This governor’s policies are radical, dangerous and destructive,” she said, deriding her as a “career politician.” “…Lansing needs common sense. We need to make sure we stop strangling our businesses and we help them to create jobs, we help them to increase salaries and we help them to be prosperous.”
AFTER THE DEBATE
“I feel that we had a strong debate. I’m happy about it,” Dixon said after the debate. “I have a responsibility of speaking up for everybody in the state who has wanted to say these things for so long, and I take that seriously.”
A poll released Thursday showed the race is tightening. Asked if she was paying attention to the numbers, Dixon joked, “Oh heavens no, why would we pay attention to those? Maybe a little bit.”
With the election only weeks away, News 8 asked her what her final message is to voters.
“We want to bring education back in the state, we want to protect our families and make sure we have safe cities, and we want to increase the economic status of Michigan and make sure we’re number one again,” she said.
When asked about Whitmer’s statement that Dixon wouldn’t respect the outcome of election because she has supported the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, she said, “People question elections. That’s our right as citizens of the United State.”
“People in this country are allowed to question elections,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to accept the will of the people, that’s ridiculous.”
She also rejected Whitmer’s claim that she once said children can’t get COVID-19.
“I have never said that. In fact my own children have had COVID, so I would never say that,” she said.
Whitmer, who said she was “not worried” about the polls and assumed it would be close, said “there’s a lot at stake in this election.”
“It’s a question of whether or not we’re going to continue to have full bodily autonomy as women and it’s a question of whether we’re going to count every vote, whether we’re going to call out threats of violence and conspiracy theories that undermine and threaten our democracy,” she said. “All of this is squarely on the ballot, as is public education. My opponent has got some very outdated thoughts about what she wants to do around public education. We can’t afford setbacks, we need to put our foot on the accelerator.”
This is the first time the two candidates have met, according to Whitmer.
“This is the first time that I’ve met Mrs. Dixon. I think the rhetoric that you hear on the campaign trail is exactly what we saw here tonight so I don’t think there were really any surprises,” she said.
She said she hopes voters see “there is a stark choice to be made.”
“We have delivered on some wonderful fronts for this state, we’ve got more good work to do and I’m excited and optimistic about our future,” she said.
She pointed to investments she says the state has made.
“Michigan is a state that needs leaders who can work together,” Whitmer said. “Even though I’ve had my differences with our Legislature, we have delivered some incredible investments, whether it’s in K-12 education, versus economic development announcements we’ve made here in Grand Rapids last week or the support for our law enforcement and so we’ve got to continue to work together.”
Asked about Dixon’s comment that Whitmer would “gladly put little boys in your daughter’s locker room,” Whitmer had a short response that was a repeat of something she had said more than once already during the debate: “That is ridiculous.”
Before the debate, some demonstrators could be seen outside the WOOD TV8 studio in Grand Rapids, holding signs in support of their candidate or disparaging the opponent.
The general election is Nov. 8. Some 1.6 million absentee ballots have been requested — a number likely to grow — and more than 155,000 already returned. The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office says this could be the highest turnout ever for a gubernatorial election, the Associated Press has reported.
—News 8’s Madalyn Buursma contributed to this report.