Schuette, Whitmer trade shots in testy gubernatorial debate

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, right, and Republican Bill Schuette, debate Friday in Grand Raids. (AP photo)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Republican Bill Schuette on Friday criticized his opponent for governor as an “extreme,” tax-raising candidate who accomplished “nothing” as a lawmaker, while Democrat Gretchen Whitmer touted her bipartisan work to expand Medicaid and said the attorney general continually sued to take health coverage away from people.

The two also traded shots over the prosecution of sexual abuser Larry Nassar, Flint’s water crisis and crumbling roads in their first head-to-head debate.

Schuette, who has trailed in polls, said he would eliminate a 2007 income tax increase that was backed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Whitmer, who was a state senator then, to help balance the budget in the recession.

“When she says she’s going to fix the roads, she’s going to raise your darn taxes. She wants to raise gas taxes. It’s an extreme agenda that would drive us back,” Schuette said.

Whitmer said she crossed the aisle to help GOP Gov. Rick Snyder make 680,000 more people eligible for government health insurance under the federal health law, while Schuette has filed lawsuits against it. She accused him of only addressing problems for media attention and said spending at least $2 billion more a year on road and bridge projects would save motorists from hundreds of dollars a year in vehicle repairs caused by potholes.

“I put a real plan on the table to fix the damn roads. Bill Schuette’s plan is two steps — get elected and then figure it out. We deserve better and can do better,” Whitmer said.

The two are vying to succeed Snyder, who is term-limited, in what is a top race nationally.

After delivering opening statements at WOOD-TV’s studio in Grand Rapids, the rivals were first asked about a 1989 video clip — released this week — in which Schuette told a woman who asked him to move closer to a lamp: “I will do anything you want. Some things I may not let you run the camera on.”

Schuette, who has said he regrets the “embarrassing” and “poor attempt” at humor, said during the debate that the footage was “drastically edited,” calling its release a “Planned Parenthood Democrat hit job on me.” He said he is focused on cutting taxes and lowering auto insurance premiums.

He said it is “shameful” that Whitmer’s running mate, Garlin Gilchrist, has not taken better care of his “dilapidated” apartment building in Detroit. Gilchrist acknowledged Friday that he owns the property that has drawn complaints from nearby residents, and he said he has been struggling to find loans to refurbish it.

Whitmer called the Schuette video “bizarre” but added: “The fact of the matter is I don’t care about that video. I care about getting to the issues that really matter to the people of this state.” She pointed to health care, women’s reproductive rights and reinstating a tax exemption for retirement income.

After the debate, Schuette’s wife Cynthia — they got married in 1991 — told reporters he is a “good man” who was being “flirtatious and silly and stupid” in the video.

Throughout the debate, Schuette repeatedly said Whitmer only had three bills enacted during her 14-year career in the Legislature.

“You’ve done nothing,” he said.

Whitmer countered that she was in the minority caucus the entire time and said she cared about legislative “results,” not taking credit.

“The most stark difference between me and my opponent here is that I do the work when the cameras aren’t on,” she said, criticizing Schuette for attacking Granholm, who served from 2003 through 2010.

The candidates also continued to lob attacks over the lead contamination in Flint and the Nassar case. Schuette accused Whitmer, who was the interim Lansing-area prosecutor in 2016, of failing to prosecute the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor for sexual assaults before his office took the case. She called the allegation “nonsense.”

Whitmer said Schuette ignored Flint residents’ complaints about the water and his office signed an environmental order used to facilitate a switch in water sources with disastrous consequences. Schuette, who filed criminal charges against government officials — including in Snyder’s administration — said he “did the right thing” and any other suggestion is “just nonsense.”

The candidates will meet for their second, final debate on Oct. 24 in Detroit.

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