5 things to watch in this week’s Democratic debates in Detroit

July 28, 2019 8:11 am

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Marianne Williamson, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former tech executive Andrew Yang, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) take the stage for the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After months of Democratic presidential candidates — plus Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Penceflocking to Michigan, the state is set this week to be the formal epicenter of the 2020 campaign.

Twenty Democratic hopefuls will participate in the next round of Democratic presidential debates on Tuesday and Wednesday.* Both feature 10 candidates apiece and kick off at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

You can expect to have media from around the country — and even around the globe — descend into Motown (and, of course, no Macomb County diner will be safe).

So what should Michigan voters be looking for? Here are five issue to watch:

Working-class voters

It will be fascinating to see how candidates handle this issue. You can count on hopefuls being asked how they’ll win back working-class people in Michigan and the Upper Midwest who Trump won in 2016 — and it’s a safe bet that the group won’t be qualified as white voters, even though that’s who the moderators will be talking about.

And if you’re doing a debate drinking game, you might not want to put Macomb County on your card, unless you’re able to skip work the next day.

So far, candidates like O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been playing up their appeal to blue-collar voters. Biden, for instance, talks about his Scranton, Pa., roots whenever he can, and Sanders and O’Rourke have both held union campaign events in Michigan.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) delivered pointed criticism while speaking at the Detroit NAACP dinner in May, noting that the working class is incredibly diverse and candidates need to address the needs of working people of color. Debates are about driving home contrasts, and Harris got plenty of attention for calling out Biden’s record on busing in the first round in Miami. The Detroit debates would seem to be an ideal forum to hash out fundamental approaches to both race and class.

Remembering the ladies

Shortly after the 2018 election, which was marked by a Democratic pink wave, pundits oddly decided to ignore the results and return to obsessing over Dems learning the lessons of 2016 — which, in their estimation, means figuring out how to win back white, working-class voters (again, the white part is almost always not said, just implied).

In Michigan, Democratic women, led by now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, won every top statewide office, except lieutenant governor, a position held by the first African American in state history, Garlin Gilchrist. Two Democratic women, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, flipped GOP U.S. House seats. Democrats stressed health care and infrastructure, as well as their commitment to abortion rights and social justice issues.

Candidates like U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have recognized the importance of courting suburban women, as she held a March Fems for Dems event in Oakland County.

But there’s been a distinct dearth of national reporters swarming Southeast Michigan PTA meetings to divine how the 2020 election will shake out. Even if debate moderators ignore female voters’ interests, it’s worth noting which candidates go out of their way to raise issues women care about.

Cracks in the economy

Trump loves to talk about the roaring American economy, although growth is starting to slow. But there are plenty of middle-, working- and lower-class people who have been left behind. Some have given up looking for work; others piece together two or three jobs to make the income they once did.

Paying for your kids’ college without huge loans is now something beyond the dreams of many upper-middle-class parents. And many people are drowning in credit card, student loan and other debt. Women and people of color continue make less than their white male counterparts.

In Michigan, home of a decade-long recession that started well before the 2008 financial crash, thousands of people are bruised and battered from layoffs, especially in the auto industry and manufacturing, and stagnant low pay in the growing service sector. In many corners of the state, from urban centers to rural towns, there’s a distinct lack of hope.

Those voting in the Democratic primary are looking at concrete solutions, which could be an opportunity for the candidate known for her plans, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who talked about “economic patriotism” at a June stop in Lansing.

Flint water crisis

This issue shaped the last Democratic presidential debate held in Michigan in 2016, as it was, well, at the University of Michigan-Flint campus (it was not as significant at the GOP presidential debate in Detroit that year). More than five years after the crisis broke, it’s faded from national TV broadcasts, but it still looms large in Michigan.

Several Democratic candidates recognize that and have stopped in Flint, including Gillibrand, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). Some hopefuls, like Castro, have delved into policy and proposed formal plans. Will other candidates take advantage of the Michigan debate and offer more than platitudes?


The suite of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which have been found in everything from firefighting foam to nonstick pans, may not have netted Flint water crisis-level attention. But there’s a growing recognition they pose a widespread threat to public health and water supplies across the country, as PFAS has dominated several Capitol Hill hearings this year.

Michigan has the most discovered sites in the nation and has been at the forefront of tackling this issue. So far, PFAS attracted some attention on the campaign trail, like U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) discussing it with reporters at a West Michigan stop this spring. We’ll see if any contenders choose to raise PFAS in the limited time they have in the crowded debates.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.