Night 2: Every time candidates brought up Michigan in the debate

By: - August 1, 2019 8:09 am

Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio at the second Democratic debate | Andrew Roth

“All politics is local” is one of the biggest maxims in the business — and it remained true on Wednesday evening as the second set of 10 Democratic presidential candidates took to the debate stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

The contenders were: Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, businessman Andrew Yang, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Many candidates who have already done campaign stops in Michigan prior to the debate, as the Advance noted, couldn’t resist mentioning the state during the more than two-hour debate.

On Tuesday, the Advance rounded up all the Michigan mentions in the first debate. We’ve helpfully done it again for round two: 

Immigrants scapegoated for robots’ deeds

During a discussion on immigration reform, Yang said that the real problem in our economy is robots – not immigrants – taking jobs from workers in places like Detroit. 

CNN video 

“If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants; you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines,” Yang said. “Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.”

Solutions for Flint water crisis 

Two candidates – de Blasio and Castro – laid out why voters in Flint and other cities with water problems should trust them to solve the problem. 

Bill de Blasio after the second debate | Andrew Roth

Recently, de Blasio has come under fire after children living in public housing in New York City tested positive for elevated levels of lead. 

“We have a huge problem, and it’s decades old in New York. Here’s what we’ve done about it: we declared the eradication of all lead, literally ending the notion of lead poisoning once and for all as the goal of our administration,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to go into every place – buildings, schools, public housing – and take out that lead, remediate that lead once and for all. That needs to be done all over this country.”

Castro was the first candidate to visit Flint in the 2020 election cycle, and he also touted that he previously visited the city in as a member of the former President Barack Obama administration.

“People don’t have to wonder what I would do; I’ve actually done it. I was secretary of Housing and Urban Development when Flint had its water crisis. I went to Flint, we did what we could to help folks get water filters, and then we didn’t stop there; we improved the standard of how we deal with elevated blood lead levels in children,” Castro said. “I was back in Flint about six weeks ago, and I released a plan to invest $50 billion so that we remove lead as a major public health threat. We need to do it, we can do it, and I will do it.”

Flint resident asks question about Detroit economy 

One of the only questions from the general public that moderators used came from a Flint resident who asked about Detroit’s economy and automation, after Yang brought the topic up earlier in the night. 

Bennet said that America should use money currently spent on the military to innovate here at home instead.

Michael Bennet after the first Democratic debate | Andrew Roth

“We’ve spent $5.6 trillion in the Middle East. That’s $12 trillion or $13 trillion that from the point of view of driving the economy in Michigan, or anywhere else in America, we might as well just have lit that money on fire. We’ve got to stop doing that,” Bennet said. 

“And we need to invest in America again. For the money that we’ve spent that I just described, we could have fixed every road and bridge in this country. We could have fixed every airport that needs to be fixed. We could have fixed not just Flint, but every water system in this country.”

Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code

Inslee, whose campaign is focused on climate change, has visited Michigan’s most polluted zip code several times – including, most recently, this week. 

CNN video 

Despite urging from U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who has long represented the area going back to her time in the state House, Inslee is one of the only candidates to visit the ZIP code this week. 

“We also need to embed environmental justice. I was in ZIP code 48217 in the Detroit neighborhood the other day, right next to an oil refinery where the kids have asthma and they have cancer clusters,” Inslee said. “After talking to these folks, I believe this: it doesn’t matter where your ZIP code is, it doesn’t matter what your color is, you gotta have clean air and clean water in America.”

Stabenow gets a shout-out

During a discussion on the Mueller report and the merits of impeaching President Donald Trump, Booker gave a shout-out to one of his colleagues from Michigan, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who this week announced that she supports opening an impeachment inquiry. 

I’ve read the report. … We have something that is astonishing going on in the United States of America. We have a president that is not acting like the leader of the free world. He’s acting like an authoritarian against the actual Constitution that he swore an oath to uphold,” Booker said.

“And I’ll tell you this: Debbie Stabenow now has joined my call for starting impeachment proceedings, because he [Trump] is now stonewalling Congress, not allowing subjecting himself to the checks and balances. We swore an oath to uphold the Constitution.

“The politics of this be dammed. When we look back in history at what happened when a president of the United States started acting more like an authoritarian leader than the leader of the free world, the question is: ‘What will we have done?’ And I believe the Congress should do its job.”


Trade was one of several issues for which Biden had to fend off challengers. Trump has proposed a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which has big implications for Rust Belt states like Michigan.

De Blasio challenged the former vice president to answer whether he would vote for NAFTA again. 

“I believe you’re the only person on the stage who voted for the original NAFTA,” de Blasio said. “Are you ready to say here and now that you will oppose a new NAFTA and that what you believe in, which is a lot of us hope for, is trade treaties that empower organized labor across the boundaries of the world and give working people power again, not just multinational corporations?”

Biden responded simply, “Yes.”

Universal basic income math

Yang, whose signature campaign issue is a universal basic income, shared how much that would cost in the city of Detroit. 

Yang and Biden signs outside the debate | Susan J. Demas

“So let me share the math,” Yang said. “A thousand dollars a month for every adult would be $461 million every month, right here in Detroit alone.”

Candidates make Michigan electability arguments

Biden’s argument for why the key swing state of Michigan would vote for him in 2020 revolved largely around his time serving in the Obama administration. 

“I was asked to manage an $87 billion plan to be spent in a total of 18 months that revived this state and many others, and it kept us out of a depression,” Biden said. “I was part of the organization within our administration that pushed bailing General Motors out, saving tens of thousands of jobs here in this state. I also was asked – as the mayor of Detroit can tell you – by the President of the United States to help Detroit get out of bankruptcy and get back on its feet. I spent the better part of two years out here, working to make sure that it did exactly that.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has endorsed Biden for president.

Gillibrand touted a bus tour she recently took of three key swing states – Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – as well as the fact that she flipped a congressional district in New York. 

“To the people of Michigan, I know exactly how I’d beat President Trump; I’ve already done it. I took a bus tour to talk about Trump’s broken promises here in Michigan.”

Kirsten Gillibrand after the second Democratic debate | Andrew Roth

Gillibrand’s bus tour included stops in Oakland County, Flint and Lansing earlier this month. 

Yang argued that by reframing the debate on the economy, Democrats will be able to better connect with voters – both their own and disaffected Trump supporters. 

“The problem is that so many people feel like the economy has left them behind. What we have to do is … say, ‘Look, there’s record high GDP and stock market prices; you know what else is record highs? Suicide, drug overdoses, depression, anxiety,’” Yang said. 

“The way we win this election is we redefine economic progress to include all the things that matter to the people in Michigan and all of us like our own health, our wellbeing, our mental health, our clean air and clean water, how our kids are doing. If we change the measurements of the 21st century economy to revolve around our own well-being, then we will win this election.”

Gabbard said that people feel betrayed by both political parties, but claimed she is “speaking truth to people all across this country.”

“Donald Trump won this election because far too many people in this country felt like they’ve been left behind by both political parties, by self-serving politicians on both sides who are more interested in partisan politics than they are in actually fighting for the people,” Gabbard said. 

Booker said Democrats lost Michigan in 2016 because of voter suppression and promised to take that on head on. 

“We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African American voters. We need to say that. If the African American vote in this state had been like it was four years earlier, we would have won the state of Michigan,” Booker said. “I will be a person that tries to fight against voter suppression, that can activate engage the kinds of voters and coalitions that are going to win states like Michigan.”

Kamala Harris and Cory Booker talk after the second debate | Andrew Roth

Harris said that Americans will want a different tone from the White House than currently exists. 

“He betrayed the American people, he betrayed American families, he will lose this election because folks are clear that he has done nothing except try to beat people down instead of lift them up and that’s what we want in the next president of the United States,” Harris said.

Echoing the U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) argument from the first night’s debate, de Blasio said that Democrats can only win if they counter Trump with bold promises of their own. 

“Donald Trump won this state of Michigan by saying he was going to disrupt the status quo,” de Blasio said. “How about we be the party that’s going to disrupt the status quo for working people?”

Detroit, city on the rise

Booker focused much of his closing remarks on Detroit, comparing the city to his family. 

“One of the reasons I respect this city is because it has the kind of defiant love that I find in many American cities, including the city of Newark,” Booker said. “And Detroit is turning around and Newark is turning around because we let no one divide us, no one demean or degrade us or underestimate or worth. We pulled together and fought for common purpose and common cause.”

“That’s the history of this city. My mom is sitting there who was born in the city of Detroit, born to a guy that was a UAW worker, my grandfather, who pulled his family out of poverty in the Depression. My grandmother joined him. She was really entrepreneurial, opened a pool hall and a laundromat right here in this city. That is the American dream.”

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.