Democrats Debate Sunday in Flint, With Focus on Water Crisis

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off Sunday night in Flint, Mich., the city itself will be part of the debate.

The lack of clean water in Flint, a financially struggling, predominantly black city, touches on many of the issues Democrats are campaigning on this year: income inequality, race relations, infrastructure investment and environmental regulation.

Clinton and Sanders have each visited the city already, solicited donations to help residents and urged Congress to send financial aid. They have opened campaign offices there and aired ads about the problems. Sanders has called for Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign over the water crisis. The city’s Democratic mayor is a Clinton supporter.

“Every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said in a recent debate. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water … . If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”

Snyder, a Republican, is taking the brunt of the criticism for the water crisis, though the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency also gets some blame.

The solution proposed by the state’s Democratic U.S. senators would cost $600 billion. That’s prompted Republicans to slow the process as some question whether the problem is a federal or a state and local issue.

In one potential twist, though, Republican Donald Trump speaks often about rebuilding American infrastructure, and he laments that so much government money has been spent in the Middle East, much on a war that Clinton supported.

“We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people,” Trump said in a debate Thursday. “If we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off.”

The problem started in April 2014, when government officials appointed by Snyder decided to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River to save money. Corrosive water ate away at the pipes, causing lead to contaminate the water supply. The city switched back to its original water supply, Lake Huron, a year and a half later. But it was too late.

Some blame the water for causing learning disabilities, problems with attention and fine motor coordination in children and even violent behavior. Others say it has led to miscarriages.

Some local, state and federal officials knew there were serious problems with Flint’s water long before they switched the source back to Lake Huron, according to recent reports. Snyder, who had appointed an emergency manager who approved of changing the water supply, has apologized.

Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, faulted Democratic candidates for not reaching out to officials at every level, including Snyder’s office, to fully understand the issue and discuss solutions.

At the Republican debate Thursday, which took place 65 miles away in Detroit, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida praised Snyder for taking responsibility and blasted Democrats for making it a campaign issue.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” Rubio said. “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.”

It was Sanders who first publicly called for Snyder to resign, and he restated that call at a debate in January. “A man who acts that irresponsibly should not be in power,” he said.