FLINT, Mich.—Taking a detour from New Hampshire’s campaign trail, Hillary Clinton said Sunday that a water crisis in a Michigan city was “immoral” and demanded that Congress approve $200 million in emergency aid to address the community’s battle with lead-contaminated water.
The Democratic presidential hopeful made a quick visit to Flint, an unusual stop for a candidate trailing in polls against rival Bernie Sanders in the first primary state. Clinton hopes to use a narrower-than-expected loss in Tuesday’s primary as a springboard into contests later this month in Nevada and South Carolina.
Clinton said she was making a “personal commitment” to help Flint in a message delivered not only to the congregants at a local Baptist church but also a more heavily-minority electorate in Southern contests that could help her build a foundation for a delegate-by-delegate drive toward the nomination.
“This is not merely unacceptable or wrong, though it is both. What happened in Flint is immoral,” Clinton said at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church. She added: “I will fight for you in Flint no matter how long it takes.”
Aides said Clinton was invited by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to address the crisis of lead-poisoned water, a case that she has cited in Iowa and New Hampshire as an example of racial and economic injustice. It is an issue that resonates among Democrats, particularly African-American voters who play a major role in later contests in South Carolina and a swath of “Super Tuesday” states on March 1; Michigan’s primary is March 8.
From the pulpit, Clinton urged Congress to provide $200 million to fix Flint’s water system, saying it was “no time for politics as usual.”
Pastor Kenneth Stewart told the crowd, which greeted Clinton enthusiastically, that America will “give birth to a president” in nine months. “Most of us in here is praying that it be a girl,” he said to loud applause.
Before her remarks, Clinton said she met with two mothers whose kids’ health had worsened because of the water. She later met with a group of mostly government officials to thank them and discuss solutions.
The chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Ronna Romney McDaniel, accused Clinton of using Flint families as “political pawns” and said the visit was a “calculated campaign tactic — an attempt to grab headlines by a struggling campaign.”
Clinton narrowly beat Sanders in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses last Monday but has trailed the Vermont senator in New Hampshire by large margins. Her aides worry that a big Sanders victory in the state could help him make headway among women and minority voters, important parts of the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama as president.
Sanders’ strength with younger voters only heightens the threat he poses to what was once Clinton’s decisive national lead.
Stopping at a local Dunkin’ Donuts before departing New Hampshire on Sunday morning, Clinton pledged to fight for every vote in New Hampshire, but at least some of her operation is moving on. This weekend, former President Bill Clinton wooed voters in Las Vegas, campaign surrogates knocked doors in San Antonio, and Clinton’s aides announced an upcoming meeting with civil rights leaders in New York City.
Clinton aides are trying to make the case that the heavily white and liberal electorates of New Hampshire and Iowa make them outliers in the nomination fight. They say Clinton will find more success in the South Carolina primary on Feb 20 and the Nevada caucuses a week later, where polls show her with a wide lead.
In recent days, she has used the state as a testing ground for new campaign messages targeted at specific groups, with pledges to break “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” and promising young voters that she would “be for them” even if they support Sanders.
Sanders has worked to boost his profile among black voters who make up more than half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate.
He made only passing reference to the crisis in Flint at a campaign rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Sunday, rarely straying from the central economic themes of his candidacy.
“There is one area where not only are we not making progess, we are losing ground, and that is the economic struggle,” he told 1,200 cheering supporters.
Sanders’ backers believe that as African-Americans learn more about the Vermont senator, they will warm to his liberal message, pointing to a endorsement this week by former NAACP President Ben Jealous. Clinton is one of the best known political figures in the world and has strong backing among Latinos and black voters.
“Before a few weeks ago, I never gave Bernie Sanders the time of day,” said South Carolina state Rep. Justin Bamberg, who recently switched his backing from Clinton. “But if you look at Sanders he has been solid as concrete with regards to his passion for racial, social and economic justice.”