AP Interview: Whitmer focuses on ‘fundamentals’ like roads

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer addresses her supporters after winning the primary, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, in Detroit. Whitmer will face Republican Bill Schuette in November. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer said she is focused on fixing Michigan’s “fundamentals” like roads, water systems and schools in her run for governor, contending that not spending enough on core services under Republican leadership has still left residents paying more out of pocket for car repairs and other unexpected expenses.

She said her polling lead over GOP rival Bill Schuette since last month’s primary shows the problem-solving message is resonating, but “not for one second” will she let up less than two months until Election Day. She dismissed as “phony political talking points” Schuette’s warning that she would be the next Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who was governor during the state’s protracted economic decline.

“It’s not working. Maybe they’re going to figure that out at some point during this campaign, that people want solutions to problems,” Whitmer told The Associated Press in an interview.

She said she is running against potholes and low-performing schools — not President Donald Trump, whose low favorability with likely voters may boost Democratic candidates and hurt Republicans in the midterm election. About two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent Detroit News/WDIV poll, which showed her up by 14 percentage points, said Trump would play a major factor in their vote.

Whitmer, who was a state lawmaker across three governorships, has come under criticism from Schuette for supporting Granholm-era business and income tax increases to help balance the budget during the recession — moves she notes were not blocked by the GOP-led Senate in which she served at the time. When Republican Gov. Rick Snyder took office, he and the GOP-led Legislature slashed business taxes but increased individual taxes through the elimination or reduction of various exemptions and largely left the income tax hike intact. They later raised fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to boost spending on roads and bridges.

“Under the last eight years, the burden of running government has shifted onto people who can bear it the least — working people and the working poor,” Whitmer said.

She said people are paying a “road tax” each time they are forced to fix their cars because of shoddy roads. They are paying a “water tax” whenever they buy bottled water because they cannot trust the water from their taps, she said, adding that parents pay an “education tax” when they hire tutors because of overcrowded classrooms

“We are paying all of these Republican taxes in our everyday life,” said Whitmer, who is proposing a $3 billion spending plan for road construction and lead pipe replacements. Asked if her proposal would require additional increases in fuel taxes or registration fees, she said she took “tough votes” for such bills as a legislator and as governor she would be “willing to do the right thing to actually solve problems even if it’s the tough thing to do.”

She said she would ask voters to pass an infrastructure bond if her plan met legislative resistance.

“Bill Schuette wants to tell you, ‘You can buy less gas and travel further.’ And you know what? No one’s buying it,” she said.

Whitmer has been critical of Snyder’s tenure but said she gives him “enormous praise” for pushing through an expansion of Medicaid to 663,000 lower-income adults despite resistance within his own party. While Democrats are attacking Schuette over health care, Republicans are accusing Whitmer of wanting to abolish U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE — which has been thrust into a political debate over the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents after they illegally crossed the Mexico border.

Whitmer said the GOP is twisting comments she made to a Republican tracker at a protest against the separations, and what ICE has done is “fundamentally undemocratic and outrageous. But they are an extension of the Trump administration, so just abolishing a department does not fix the problem.”

She said if voters remain energized like they were for the primary, it is “very possible” that Democrats could gain control not only of the House but also the Senate despite facing gerrymandered maps.

“It’s an environment like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Whitmer said.

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