Garrett Soldano, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt, Ryan Kelley and Kevin Rinke participate in a GOP gubernatorial debate on WKAR’s Off the Record, July 15, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
Four of the five GOP candidates vying to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November faced off for another debate Friday morning, this time in the WKAR-TV studio in East Lansing just weeks before the Aug. 2 primary.
Far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano all fielded questions from Off the Record host Tim Skubick about jobs, state funding, appointments, transparency, working with the state Legislature, former President Donald Trump and more.
Right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon was absent from the event to be at her father’s funeral.
Dixon has received financial backing from the billionaire DeVos family and endorsements from multiple members of the Michigan Legislature, including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). She also has received endorsements from GOP former Michigan Gov. John Engler, former acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenelland organizations including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce political action committee, Right to Life of Michigan, Police Officers Association of Michigan, Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan and the American Conservative Union.
As a result, some of Dixon’s GOP opponents have gone after her as the establishment-backed candidate. A new Rinke campaign ad released before the debate blasts Dixon as being backed by “RINOs” (Republicans in name only).
“Tudor Dixon is pandering to President Trump,” Rinke told reporters after the debate, before alleging that Dixon is “surrounding herself” with people who are against Trump.
Trump — who is under fire over new details emerging in the Jan. 6 congressional committee of planning to overturn the election, culminating with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — has not endorsed anyone in the race.
Soldano similarly said he believes Dixon is “playing both sides” when it comes to Trump. Asked about recent polling that indicated Dixon is in the lead, Soldano said that “all polls are hot garbage.”
Candidates opened by discussing key issues in Michigan’s economy, including a state aid package for General Motors to build electric vehicle plants in Michigan.
The candidates also criticized the bipartisan state budget and the GOP-led Legislature’s approval of a $1 billion “pork package” with many candidates speaking out against “wasteful spending.”
Rebandt referenced his own solution, an anti-appropriations roundtable of citizens who look at items to cut in the budget.
“Our budget is bloated. Lansing is drunk on it,” Rinke said, noting that he would eliminate the personal income tax in Michigan.
“The only way to control government is to starve it.”
During lightning-round questions at the end of the debate’s first half, Rinke characterized Whitmer’s proposed $500 tax rebate as “disingenuous” and alleged the Democrat is using it in an attempt to “buy votes.”
Candidates also discussed transparency in office, with Soldano criticizing Whitmer’s sunshine plan, touting his own “sunshine plan 2.0.”
“We’re going to open the books at Lansing. We’re going to make sure that we’re getting FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests to the executive, legislative branches. We’re going to open the books and see who’s lobbying who, what special interests are you tied to,” Soldano said.
Michigan is one of two states in the country where the executive office and Legislature aren’t subject to open-records requests. Legislation has repeatedly stalled in recent years in the GOP-led Legislature.
Rebandt said he wants to be known as “the most truthful, accountable and transparent governor in the state of Michigan,” noting his intent to sign a bill making Michigan an open-records state.
As he has done at previous debates, Kelley chose not to attend a post-debate opportunity to speak with reporters and left quickly instead. The other three candidates opted to speak with reporters.
Soldano, however, refused to field questions after the debate from a Bridge Michigan reporter.
A once-crowded candidate field was whittled down to the five current GOP contenders in late May, when the Michigan Bureau of Elections recommended five candidates be removed after reporting an “unprecedented” number of fraudulent signatures on petitions for state office and the Board of State Canvassers followed suit.
The scandal left former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, financial adviser Michael Markey and self-described “quality guru” Perry Johnson under the required threshold needed to make the ballot.
Several days prior to the debate, Kelley became the first GOP candidate to announce a running mate, Jamie Swafford. Like Kelley, Swafford also reportedly participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Kelley is the focus of a newly filed lawsuit from Progress Michigan that alleges, based on a Civil War-era statute in the Michigan Constitution, that any votes for the former county commissioner should be tossed out based on Kelley’s Jan. 6 involvement.
Kelley was arrested by the FBI on June 9 for charges related to the insurrection and pleaded not guilty to the four misdemeanors last week. If convicted, he faces a maximum punishment on each charge of up to a year in federal prison or a fine of up to $100,000.
Kelley repeatedly spoke about the lawsuit and arrest during the debate.
“They’re trying to silence me — kicking me off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, silenced on TikTok, arrested by the FBI. Now there’s a lawsuit that’s trying to keep me off the ballot claiming insurrection,” Kelley said, later calling the misdemeanor charges “ridiculous.”
Skubick challenged the candidates on their lack of legislative experience, asking whether they wouldn’t be a “babe in the woods” and potentially taken advantage of during negotiations with state lawmakers.
The candidates argued that although they lacked government experience, their “outsider” status would be a boon for the governor’s office rather than a disadvantage. Rebandt and Kelley argued that “career politicians” are more beholden to special interests.
On civil rights, candidates were asked whether Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) should be expanded to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination. The effort is supported by many in the state’s business community, as Skubick noted.
“I don’t think because you’re gay, you should be fired from your job or lose your housing,” Rinke said. “… People have a right to be who they are and what they are.”
Soldano, Rebandt and Kelley said state law does not need changes since federal protections are already in place. However, legal experts have noted that LGBTQ+ rights, contraception and more could be rolled back after the U.S. Supreme Court last month discarded precedent and overturned the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion in Roe v. Wade.
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