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Candidates spend little time on urban policy in Detroit debate

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The Secretary of State says local jurisdictions and school districts in 82 of Michigan's 83 counties are conducting elections today.

Four Republican presidential candidates spent a scant seven and a half minutes talking about Detroit, Flint, and manufacturing at a debate held in Detroit Thursday night.

Most of the two-hour debate was a fracas focused largely on frontrunner Donald Trump, who acknowledged shifting positions on some issues, and defended his manhood against earlier attacks by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who said he had “small hands.”

“I guarantee you there’s no problem,” said Trump as he held his hands up to the audience.

It took until well into the second hour of the debate before the questions turned to issues on its home turf regarding manufacturing, Detroit’s schools, and the Flint water crisis. 

Rubio said the Flint water crisis is being used as a political football, and defended Governor Rick Snyder’s handling of it.

“I don’t think someone woke up one morning and said, let’s figure out how to poison the water system and hurt someone,” he said to the cheers of the crowd packed into Detroit’s Fox Theater. “But accountability is important. I will say I give the governor credit. He took responsibility for what happened, and he’s talked about people held accountable and the need to change it.”  

Snyder and his administration have come under fire for being slow to acknowledge lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water. There are state and federal investigations underway, and Snyder is scheduled to testify later this month before a congressional committee. 

Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked about fixing Detroit’s schools, which have suffered from labor troubles, and rodents and mold in classrooms. The district is expected to run out of money next month. 

Kasich says he would streamline federal education funding and give local authorities more responsibility.

“Fixing schools rests at the state and the local levels and particularly at the school board level,” he said to applause from the crowd. “I also believe you need to introduce vocational education at those schools. You need mentoring in those schools … You need school choice, both voucher and charter schools.”

Kasich incorrectly stated that Detroit’s schools had been placed under the mayor’s control. The district remains under the purview of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz blamed Democrats for problems faced by Detroit and other urban centers.

“Detroit is a great city with a magnificent legacy that has been utterly decimated by 60 years of failed left-wing policies,” he said.

The remedy, said Cruz, is rolling back taxes, especially on exports, and reducing environmental regulations.

Trump was not asked any questions during that portion of the debate.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are scheduled to debate each other in Flint Sunday.

Michigan’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries are Tuesday.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.