FLINT, Mich.—Nakiya Wakes raised her hand in a church to ask Bernie Sanders what he would do to help the people of Flint if he is elected president.
The city’s lead-tainted water, Wakes said, is to blame for her miscarriage and her son’s repeated suspensions from the first grade.
About 2½ weeks earlier, she and another mother met privately with Hillary Clinton during her stop in city to discuss solutions, not politics.
“It’s really not political with me,” Wakes, 40, said after Sanders’ forum. “When are you going to get something done for the families and these children?”
This majority-black impoverished community in central Michigan is dealing with a months-long state of emergency over its contaminated drinking water. The crisis has become a hot-button issue for Democratic presidential candidates.
The issue has become so dominant for these White House hopefuls that they scheduled a prime-time debate in the city on Sunday ahead of the state’s primary Tuesday. Sanders has called for Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign, saying an apology is not enough.
Clinton dispatched aides to the city of nearly 100,000 in January, raised the issue during a nationally televised debate and won the mayor’s endorsement. A campaign ad with scenes from Clinton’s Feb. 7 visit to an African-American church in the city touts her resolve to “fight for you in Flint no matter how long it takes.” She has called the crisis “immoral” and says it never would have taken so long to resolve such a problem in a wealthy, predominantly white city.
Sanders vowed “never again” would a disaster like this occur if he is elected president. In a break from his large rallies, he listened to angry residents voice their frustrations and he pointed to Flint’s aging underground pipes while pushing his $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan.
Political experts say Clinton’s focus on Flint both before and since her loss in New Hampshire — including her assertion that racism is a factor — has helped shore up her standing with black voters.
“You can tell that from their perspective, it’s a very important signal of affiliation with the African-American community nationally and in Michigan,” said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “The fact that she consolidated that support despite a pretty aggressive outreach from the Sanders campaign and a change in focus by the Sanders campaign, too, suggests that the overall message — ‘I care about Flint’ — is working.”
GOP candidates, meanwhile, are mostly avoiding talk of Flint along with mention of Snyder, whose administration has come under heavy criticism for the disaster. Elevated lead levels in children can cause adverse health effects, developmental delays, and emotional and behavioral problems.
In the U.S. Senate, Republican Mike Lee of Utah said Friday that he was blocking a bipartisan bill to provide federal aid to Flint because Michigan had a budget surplus and doesn’t need the money.
Republicans accuse Democrats of politicizing Flint for their own gains and oversimplifying how the fiasco happened. Clinton said on Super Tuesday that kids “were poisoned by toxic water because the governor wanted to save a little money” when the city was under state emergency financial management. Snyder, who has apologized for his mistakes and a lagging initial response, says there also were failures by local and federal officials.
Asked about Flint in Thursday’s GOP debate in Detroit, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said “all of us are outraged by what happened” but added that Snyder “took responsibility.”
“This should not be a partisan issue. The way the Democrats have tried to turn this into a partisan issue, that somehow Republicans woke up in the morning and decided, ‘Oh, it’s a good idea to poison some kids with lead,’ it’s absurd. It’s outrageous. It isn’t true,” Rubio said to applause.
The state has committed $70 million in assistance, and Snyder is asking for at least $165 million more while Democrats seek a federal aid package, too. The second-term governor, who once considered a presidential run himself and has said he prefers a governor to be the Republican nominee, is not expected to endorse a candidate before the primary to stay focused on Flint residents, spokesman Ari Adler said.
When the last governor standing in the GOP field, Ohio’s John Kasich, was questioned about Flint in a town hall event in East Lansing, he called for a re-examination of federal water regulations and said Snyder was probably “not even sleeping trying to get on top of the whole thing and fix it.”
Mike Gooch, 57, a University of Michigan-Flint research assistant and Sanders supporter who lives near the city, cheered the decision to have a debate in Flint.
“Anything to pull a spotlight on Flint in helpful,” he said. “Whether you look at it as exploitation or whether you look at it as elevating, it all depends on your perspective. I tend to think … as long as that attention is elevated, we’re going to get support. As soon as that goes away, the support goes with it.”