Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat incumbent, and Republican opponent Tudor Dixon squared off in their first debate held Thursday night in Grand Rapids. Among the topics addressed were abortion, school safety, COVID-19, the state’s multi-billion dollar surplus, roads, crime and gun violence, inflation, and Michigan’s no-fault insurance law.
The candidates were given 90-second introductory remarks, before WOOD-TV political reporter and moderator Rick Albin began asking questions from potential voters and questions he had prepared. Initial responses were allotted 60 seconds, after which opponents were granted a 30-second rebuttal.
In her opening statement, Whitmer boasted she had increased spending on the state’s public schools and worked on creating jobs without raising taxes.
Dixon noted in her opening statement that Whitmer’s COVID-19 lockdown policies effectively “crushed” the small business she owned. She said the state’s schools are worse off than they were before Whitmer took office, and stated the governor reneged on her campaign promise to fix the state’s roads.
The first topic introduced by Albin was abortion.
The governor said she endorsed Proposal 3. The U.S. Supreme Court took away rights Michigan women had possessed for 49 years, she said, but noted the lawsuit she filed preserved those rights until voters have a chance to constitutionally codify abortion legally by approving Proposal 3 in November. She characterized Dixon’s position as extreme, saying Dixon would align with the 1931 law triggered by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this year. She said Dixon would make abortions a felony even in the cases of rape or incest or if a pregnancy threatened the health of the pregnant woman.
Dixon countered that she was pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother. She also noted Proposal 3 would legalize terminating a pregnancy into the ninth month, and would eliminate the need for parental consent for a minor to receive an abortion.
Whitmer and Dixon answered in the affirmative Albin’s question about whether they would respect the will of Michigan voters regardless the outcome of Proposal 3 at the ballot box. However, Whitmer called legalized abortion “a fundamental right,” and Dixon noted Whitmer had been trying to circumvent the existing abortion law through legal machinations.
Dixon also said Whitmer as governor had vetoed several bills designed to protect the safety of women, as well as rejecting legislation that would fund a critical pregnancy center that informed women of adoption options.
The interaction between the two candidates intensified on Second Amendment rights. Whitmer brought up a Dixon social media post during the week of the Oxford school shooting in which a photo of an armed Dixon was accompanied by the text: “Gun control means using two hands.” The governor stated Dixon was placing the Second Amendment above second graders.
Dixon said Whitmer’s proposed school safety issues were creating sitting-duck zones in the state’s public schools, before answering Albin’s next question concerning public schools. She said she wants to encourage and welcome parental involvement in their children’s schooling, and proposed getting back to the basics of education to improve the state’s “incredibly low reading scores.”
Whitmer repeated a standard refrain from her political advertising campaign that Dixon is in the pocket of her donor, former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whom Whitmer said was seeking to remove $500 million from Michigan’s schools. The statement ignited an exchange over vouchers, which Whitmer claimed wouldn’t work because most schoolchildren don’t have access to school options. Dixon responded Whitmer was silent when Flint and Detroit public schools remained closed long after other schools opened following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The candidates clashed most noticeably over Whitmer’s pandemic response. Whitmer said Dixon was disparaging the wearing of masks and repeating conspiracy theories while her life was being threatened in a kidnapping plot. Dixon responded that 3,000 restaurants were forced to close permanently due to the governor’s lockdowns. She also noted the state’s slowest-in-the-nation economic recovery, a loss of 82,000 jobs, and decision to move positive COVID-19 patients into the state’s nursing homes.
In her closing statement, Dixon said it took the Michigan Supreme Court to strip Whitmer of the emergency powers she had assumed at the outset of the pandemic and refused to relinquish. She added Whitmer attempted to raise gas taxes in Michigan and would “gladly put little boys in girls’ locker rooms.” She also stated that as a result of Whitmer’s first term crime is up and jobs are down.
Whitmer countered that Dixon was among dangerous people who peddle conspiracy theories and use divisive rhetoric. She closed by saying a second term is a choice about Michigan’s future.
A second one-hour debate between Whitmer and Dixon is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 25 at Oakland University in Rochester. It will be hosted by WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), WXMI-TV (Fox 17), WSYM-TV (Fox 47), and Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement.