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Republican candidates for governor talk Trump, tariffs, roads in latest debate

Kenny Eishoff
From left to right: Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette, State Senator Patrick Colbeck, Dr. Jim Hines before the debate.

Thursday night’s Republican governor’s debate saw Attorney General Bill Schuette touting his ties to President Trump, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley focusing on his record with Gov. Snyder, State Senator Patrick Colbeck playing up his conservative credentials, and Dr. Jim Hines playing the role of non-politician outsider in the race.

The four GOP candidates talked immigration, trade, Great Lakes water issues, education and more at the Detroit event, which was more like a candidate forum than a true debate.

Calley presented himself as a sober-minded candidate with a “real plan for the future,” and Snyder’s partner in government for the past eight years.

Calley said that when Snyder took over as governor, Michigan’s big problem was a lack of jobs. Now, he says employers are scrambling to fill positions, something he attributed to Snyder cutting business taxes and otherwise making the state more appealing to companies.

"We became a right to work state. That made such a statement to the rest of the nation that we were back and open for business,” Calley said.

Calley painted Schuette as a candidate who says “a lot of words” to cover up his lack of substantive plans.

Schuette mostly ignored this. Instead, he voiced strong support for President Trump’s policies, reminded voters that he had Trump’s endorsement, and saved his attacks for Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.

“The Democrats and Whitmer, you look at their plans…economic collapse, tax upon tax upon tax, it’s going to drive people out of the state. It’d be a mass exodus,” Schuette said.

Despite the threat posed to Michigan farmers, automakers and other businesses by Trump’s use of tariffs as a weapon in trade negotiations, Schuette professed himself “optimistic” that the state and the country will emerge from various trade talks with better deals.

"We’ve been on the short end of trading relationships for a long time. The president is trying to re-balance and renegotiate trading relationships,” Schuette said, adding: “In Bill Schuette, you’ll have someone who can actually get in the front door of the White House, and speak the Michigan language about jobs and agriculture.”

Calley attempted to walk a fine line on the tariff question.

“To the extent that the president is trying to negotiate fair trade agreements, I think that is great,” Calley said. “We just have to be careful not to create a scenario where our goods that are made here in America cannot be sold around the world.”

Asked how he would deal with a possible Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s pending retirement, Calley made it clear he would not support abortion rights on the state level.

“I think the laws in the state of Michigan reflect pro-life values already. They’re still on the books from before [Roe vs. Wade],” Calley said. “I don’t even think you’d have to change anything. And I’d absolutely want the president to nominate a pro-life Supreme Court justice.”

Like many party primary debates, the candidates sought to accentuate their differences while largely agreeing with one another.

All four Republican candidates said they believe they can fix the state’s crumbling roads without raising taxes. All voiced strong support for Second Amendment rights, saying stripping guns from “law-abiding citizens” wouldn’t end gun violence. All at least tentatively supported President Trump’s immigration crackdown, while also noting they opposed separating migrant families.

There were some differences in emphasis when it came to schools. Schuette emphasized school choice and proposed an A-F grading system for all state schools. Calley focused on skilled trades opportunities and early childhood education, saying the state should “get rid of all the siloed programs and make a real system,” though he didn’t specify what that meant. Colbeck talked about his opposition to Common Core standards and his support fo a “back-to-basics” approach empowering parents and local school boards, and Hines also talked about his opposition to Common Core and advocated reading coaches in classrooms.

On Great Lakes protection, Hines was the only candidate to support de-commissioning Enbridge’s Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac. Calley advocated for an insulating tunnel “far below the lake bed” he says would “completely eliminate the risk” of a potential spill altogether. Schuette didn’t take a definitive position, but he did call himself “a leading opponent to diversion of our Great Lakes water.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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