BHHS hosts student-led debate for Democratic gubernatorial candidates

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 12, 2018

 On March 11, Engage 18, a nonprofit created by Bloomfield Hills School District students, hosted a debate for Democratic candidates for governor. In attendance were candidates, from left to right, Shri Thanedar, Abdul El-Sayed and Bill Cobbs.

On March 11, Engage 18, a nonprofit created by Bloomfield Hills School District students, hosted a debate for Democratic candidates for governor. In attendance were candidates, from left to right, Shri Thanedar, Abdul El-Sayed and Bill Cobbs.

Photo by Donna Agusti

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — In recent weeks, students across the country have been getting more and more politically engaged. Several high school students in the Bloomfield Hills School District have taken this attitude to the next level by hosting a debate for the Democratic candidates for governor.

Three of the four candidates who have officially declared their candidacy for governor and remain in the race took part in the event: businessman Bill Cobbs, former Detroit Health Commissioner Abdul El-Sayed and businessman Shri Thanedar. The fourth candidate, Gretchen Whitmer, was invited and initially agreed to attend, but said she had to cancel due to a scheduling conflict.

The debate took place in the Bloomfield Hills High School auditorium on March 11 and was overseen by Engage 18, an entirely student-run nonprofit created to organize the event.

“Engage 18 is a nonprofit formed by Bloomfield Hills Schools students to host the debate and increase the engagement of young people in politics,” explained Michael Goldman Brown Jr., one of the co-founders of Engage 18. “I came up with the idea of the debate as a pipe dream, and I talked with (fellow co-founder Zack Farah), almost joking at first; but we kept at it and it kind of snowballed, and we made it a reality.”

The candidates began the debate by sharing some personal information about themselves. Cobbs, a businessman and former Detroit police officer, opened with the slogan “It’s our money, spend it on us.” He focused on cutting out corporate welfare and reforming tax policy and state infrastructure.

El-Sayed, who is a graduate of Bloomfield Hills High School, said putting people over profits is a cornerstone of his campaign. He said his work has always been in equity and health care, and that is the sort of leader Michigan needs at this time. He wants to bring his expertise to bear and improve the quality of life for all Michigan residents.

Thanedar focused on his identity as an immigrant who started life in poverty and succeeded in America from the bottom up. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry, created jobs as a “serial entrepreneur,” and raised two children as a single father following the death of his wife. He also stressed that he is self-funding his campaign, so he has taken no money from special interests.

Common themes running through the debate included more investment by the state in education, public transportation and infrastructure. All three also agreed that changes to the health care system and insurance system in Michigan need to be made.

The three candidates later shared what they think sets them apart from their challengers.

“I have the experience leading people and making decisions,” said Cobbs. “The governor of Michigan needs a vision and the ability to follow through. As I said during the debate, Thomas Edison said vision without execution is hallucination. We have so many things going on in Michigan, we need to bet on a sure thing; and that means putting up a candidate who can beat (Republican front-runner Bill) Schuette in the general election.”

“I’m not trying to buy the election,” said El-Sayed. “I know what I’m talking about when we talk about universal health care and rebuilding the Department of Environmental Quality with my experience … as a Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, and experience as Detroit’s health commissioner. People say experience comes with age, but I say experience comes from accomplishment, and I’m the only candidate with executive experience.”

“I have 26 years of experience and I have described myself as a serial entrepreneur,” said Thanedar. “I have a vision, and that’s what an entrepreneur does. I’m a doer and I’m running against talkers. I want to make Michigan’s economy work for all and be more inclusive; I have the leadership to do that.”

With so much discussion about investment in various areas of Michigan’s institutions, the question was raised of how to pay for such reforms.

“I want to have a constitutional amendment to change taxes in Michigan to a graduated tax system, like what is used at the federal level,” said Cobbs. “This would mean people like the rich and corporations paying their fair share in the state.”

“Our system of corporate welfare in this state is broken,” said El-Sayed. “I want to reinvest the money we are using there and put it in things like education, infrastructure and renewable energy. I also want to have a conversation about progressive income tax and legalizing marijuana, which would bring in an estimated $125 million to the state.”

“The money would come from a graduated tax structure,” said Thanedar. “The rich need to pay their fair share, we need to minimize corporate tax breaks, and I want to put a decision to the voters for a municipal bond. If we legalize marijuana as they did in Colorado, that could bring in $125 million. … I also want to reform our prisons so we aren’t wasting money locking up nonviolent offenders and stopping the school-to-prison pipeline we have now. We spend $40,000 per prisoner (per year), but we only pay $9,000 per student. That makes no sense.”

All three candidates said they want voters to look at the future of Michigan and ask themselves who has the best chance of leading the state to a better future.

“I will never promise citizens something I can’t deliver,” said Cobbs. “I know how to do everything I promised tonight. We spent two years putting together a platform for my campaign and then figuring out how we can implement it.”

“Our politics can, will and must be different,” said El-Sayed. “We need to end corporate buyouts and invest in Michigan.”

“This is really a two-person race,” said Thanedar. “I am 10 points behind the front-runner, and I have the support, the resources and a life story that resonates with voters.”

The Democratic primary election will take place Tuesday, Aug. 7. The general election between the winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries will take place Tuesday, Nov. 6.