Every time Michigan was mentioned in the 1st Democratic debate in Detroit

By: - July 31, 2019 1:40 pm

Photo via Canva

Given the Democratic Party’s fall from grace in the Upper Midwest in 2016, when they lost the crucial electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, you’d imagine there would have been plenty of talk about policies affecting the region during the first night of this week’s debates in Detroit.

Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney and Steve Bullock at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

And you’d be right.

The contenders randomly chosen to speak Tuesday night were quizzed on a slate of issues from manufacturing policy to tariffs to the environmental injustices that plague majority-minority communities like Flint, with each eager to make their case as the candidate most likely to rebuild the party’s “blue wall.”

Their pitches varied in effectiveness, from the wonky explanation from U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) of his planned appointment of a “chief manufacturing officer” to author Marianne Williamson’s surprisingly impassioned missive about the Flint water crisis. 


We at the Advance have helpfully compiled each reference below.

Ryan and Sanders spar over union workers’ health care

Ryan, who represents an area of Ohio encompassing the former manufacturing stronghold of Youngstown, used his area’s deep union ties as a cudgel against the Medicare For All plan championed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Ryan said it would take away the insurance plans negotiated by the “600,000 union members here in Michigan,” referred to by moderator Jake Tapper. 

Sanders, for his part, shot back that his plan would provide union members with better insurance, which led to one of the most memorable moments of the debate when Ryan accused him of not really knowing what his plan would do. 

Sanders’ response? “I do know it; I wrote the damn bill.”


CNN video

Sanders touts previous Midwest success

In an exchange with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper about the electoral viability of Sanders’ brand of outspoken democratic socialism, the senator pointed to his 2016 electoral success in the Midwest, something only a handful of the candidates can similarly boast.

“The truth is that every credible poll that I have seen has me beating Donald Trump — including the battleground states of Michigan, where I won the Democratic primary — Wisconsin, where I won the Democratic primary, and Pennsylvania,” Sanders boasted.

CNN video

Candidates, especially Warren, plan green manufacturing revival

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) claimed her proposed “green industrial policy” will revitalize the Midwest as a manufacturing hub, echoing similar rhetoric from other Democrats eager to simultaneously boost their prospects in the heartland and establish their environmental bonafides.

Warren said her plan will “produce about 1.2 million manufacturing jobs right here in Michigan, right here in Ohio, right here in the industrial Midwest.” Later, in fielding a question about a Sanders’ plan to eventually phase out gas-fueled automobiles. Ryan described his plan for a “chief manufacturing officer, so we could actually start making things in the United States again.”

Sanders also said the proposed Green New Deal would “create millions of good-paying jobs” and “rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated.”


Klobuchar, Williamson field question from Birmingham resident

The debate included an audience question from a Birmingham resident who asked, “What is your plan to address infrastructure, including the water issue so another Flint, Mich., does not happen again?” 

In response, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seized the opportunity to hit President Donald Trump for his failure to enact an infrastructure policy — something she also raised at a May speech in Detroit — and name-checked Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer along the way.

“I think the Governor here in Michigan smartly ran on the slogan, ‘Fix the damn roads,’ and it is an issue for union jobs,” Klobuchar said. “And so I think what we need to do is not have a president that’s promised he was going to do that on election night, if anyone remembers. And then he hasn’t followed through — he has done nothing.”


That question also gave Williamson her most notable moment of the debate, when she passionately dissected the racial inequity at the heart of events like the Flint water crisis.

“Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” Williamson said. 

“I lived in Grosse Pointe — what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight — if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Talking tariffs

Tim Ryan after the first debate | Andrew Roth

CNN moderator Don Lemon asked Ryan yet another question related to the auto industry, quizzing him on how “President Trump’s tariffs have boosted the U.S. steel industry, but hurt auto manufacturers like those here in Michigan, which could drive up the cost of cars,” and what he planned to do about it.

That discourse blossomed into a showcase of how some of the candidates have tried to position themselves against Trump on trade, one of his strongest issues in the region in the 2016 election. 

Ryan said he would “reevaluate” Trump’s tariffs, some of which he says have been effective, Delaney lamented Trump shutting down the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Warren expounded on her ambitious new trade agenda released earlier this week, which would implement tough new rules on everything from labor practices to drug pricing on America’s trade partners.

Ryan cites Grand Rapids visit

During the candidates’ debate about immigration, Ryan referred to a May trip he made to Grand Rapids, where he said he visited with immigrant children. 


“We have asylum laws,” Ryan said. “I saw the kids up in Grand Rapids, not far from here. It is shameful what is happening, but Donald Trump is doing it.”

Ryan was in Grand Rapids for a Democratic fundraiser in May, making him one of the few candidates to venture to the west side of the state.

Buttigieg talks retraining, plant closings

Lemon asked South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg what he would do to retrain workers whose jobs are at risk, specifically in light of the impending closure of a General Motors plant in Warren this week.

Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders at the first Democratic debate in Detroit | Andrew Roth

Buttigieg took the opportunity to reference his own upbringing in South Bend, which has faced deindustrialization issues of its own.

“This happened in my community 20 years before I was born. And when I was growing up, we were still picking up the pieces,” Buttigieg said. “Empty factories; empty houses; poverty. I know exactly what happens to a community when these closures take place. And there will be more.”

Differing perspectives on Detroit’s ‘rebound’

In attempting to fend off his progressive rivals’ strident anti-corporate rhetoric, former U.S. Rep. (and current multi-millionaire) John Delaney (D-Md.) pointed to Detroit’s comeback, saying, “This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together.”

Given the chance to respond, Sanders, Delaney’s frequent foil Tuesday night, pivoted to one of his strongest issues on trade, saying, “I’m delighted that Detroit is rebounding. But let us understand, Detroit was nearly destroyed because of awful trade policy which allowed corporations to throw workers in this community out on the streets as they moved to low-wage countries.”

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.