Clinton Dives Into Flint's Water Crisis in Detour From Campaign Trail

DEM 2016 Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with an audience member at the House Of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 7, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
  • Calls on Congress to direct $200 million in funds to city
  • Says problem would have been solved quickly in wealthy towns

Hillary Clinton told residents of Flint, Michigan, she would make a “personal commitment” to solving their water-contamination crisis, and that Congress should act promptly to provide $200 million in funds for a fix.

“Clean water isn’t optional my friends. It’s not a luxury,” Clinton said at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in this low-income, majority black city about 70 miles (112 kilometers) northwest of Detroit. “What happened here should never have happened anywhere.”

The former secretary of state took a break from campaigning in New Hampshire to visit the city where the discovery of contaminated water, and criticism of a slow and indifferent response by authorities, has drawn national attention. She drew a crowd of about 1,000 for a revival-type event capped by a 20-minute speech.

Flint has struggled with poverty and crime for years, hurt by the closure in the 1980s of several large automotive plants. It is now under a state of emergency after the discovery of high levels of lead and copper following a switch in its water supply in 2014 to the polluted Flint River from treated Lake Huron water.

Children at Risk

The move was made to save several millions of dollars, but the new water wasn’t properly treated, and many of the city’s water lines were corroded, resulting in compromised water quality. Thousands of children have been exposed to high lead levels, which can cause a range of serious health problems including learning disabilities. Residents of the city are suing in state court over the contamination.

Clinton said she had met before taking the stage with two mothers who told of new behavioral and health problems affecting their children that they linked to the lead-contaminated water. She called for long-term care for children exposed to the lead-laden water.

“If what is happening in Flint had been happening in Grosse Point or Bloomfield Hills, it would have been solved yesterday,” said Clinton, referring to wealthy towns in the Detroit area. “This is not merely unacceptable or wrong, although it is both. This is immoral.”

Before she left the church after her roughly 20-minute speech, Clinton talked with members of the congregation and posed for selfies with worshipers.

Racial Justice

The crisis in Flint, and the state of Michigan’s slow response, has become a rallying cry for racial justice among black voters, a key voting bloc for Clinton.

“It’s a critical point in making sure they get the resources they need to help people, particularly children,” Clinton said in a brief interview with New Hampshire’s WMUR television station before leaving for Michigan. “It is so fundamentally wrong that people would allow children to drink and bathe in poisoned water. It’s so wrong.”

Clinton’s detour comes two days before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary election. Polls there show her losing by a double-digit margin to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Speaking at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manchester, Clinton said the side-trip didn’t mean she’s giving up on New Hampshire: “I’ll be back, because I really feel strongly that I’m going to work for every vote I can get before the polls close on Tuesday.”

The candidate has taken a personal interest in Flint for weeks, reaching out to Mayor Karen Weaver, assigning members of her team to liaise with city staff, and using campaign appearances to pressure Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder, to do more in response to the crisis. She also pressed Democrats to schedule a debate in Flint in March ahead of Michigan’s primary.

Energy Bill

Flint’s crisis has made waves in the nation’s capitol. On Feb. 4 a bipartisan energy bill more than a year in the making was derailed by a dispute over whether hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid should be given to Flint.

Sanders has also weighed in, demanding the resignation of Snyder, and on Saturday condemned reports of undocumented immigrants in Flint being excluded from access to emergency clean water supplies. “No one should live in fear of being deported for getting a bottle of water for their family,” Sanders said.

Joel Benenson, Clinton’s pollster, rejected suggestions she was visiting Flint to to prevent Sanders from cutting into her support among black voters, or to change the subject from her poll numbers in New Hampshire.

‘Cares Deeply’

“It’s about getting stuff done, and she cares deeply about what happened to these kids and families,” Benenson told reporters Friday. At the same time, he suggested that Clinton’s early and continued advocacy for Flint’s residents may resonate with New Hampshire voters and minority voters in other states.

“I know that issues close to home always matter most, but I believe that people voting particularly in a Democratic primary and I would hope even voting in a Republican primary care about the disgrace of what’s happened in Flint,” Benenson said.

Antoinette Stokes, who attended Sunday’s service with her stepdaughter Autumn Maderano, said Clinton would bring “great attention” to Flint, and “the more she fights for us, the more we’re going to fight for her.”

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