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Democratic Candidates In Michigan Focus On Flint's Water Crisis


On the Democratic side of the race, the lead-up to the Michigan primary has been heavily focused on the city of Flint and its crisis of poisoned drinking water. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Flint is a city of a hundred thousand that was having a rough go of it even before its water was poisoned by lead. And when the water crisis finally grabbed national headlines this winter, the Democratic presidential candidates noticed. Hillary Clinton sent senior staff to investigate and asked her supporters to donate to a fund for Flint's kids. Bernie Sanders called on Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to resign. Then in February, Clinton visited Flint herself, meeting privately with families then speaking at a church.


HILLARY CLINTON: Well, this is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

KEITH: Clinton had already secured the endorsement of Flint's mayor. She used the speech to call on Congress to pass an emergency funding bill to help Flint.


CLINTON: This is not merely unacceptable or wrong, though it is both. What happened in Flint is immoral. The children of Flint are just as precious as the children of any other part of America.

KEITH: A week after Clinton's event, Sanders met privately in Detroit with residents of Flint. He described that experience at a community meeting he held two weeks ago in Flint.


BERNIE SANDERS: It really stunned me. It was hard for me. We got a rally a little while later - to talk to the rally because what I heard at that meeting - it was almost impossible for me to believe that I was listening to people in the United States of America in the year 2016.

KEITH: Both Clinton and Sanders have field offices in Flint, and Clinton pushed hard to have a televised debate in the city. That debate happened last night, sponsored by CNN. The candidates largely agreed on the need to help the people of Flint, and Clinton even joined Sanders in calling for Gov. Snyder to resign. But their responses to a question from local newspaper editor Bryn Mickle reflect a fundamental difference in approach to both Flint and the campaign. First, here's the question as posed to Clinton.


BRYN MICKLE: Why should the people of Flint believe that you aren't just using this crisis to score political points?

KEITH: And here's Clinton's answer.


CLINTON: So I have put together resources from the private and philanthropic communities to help provide a bridge because you've got to get the federal money. You've got to get the state money, but I'm going to do everything I can. And I will be with Flint all the way through this crisis in whatever capacity I am.

KEITH: What Clinton is talking about is a $500,000 initiative announced earlier in the day by Chelsea Clinton and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to hire local youth to deliver water, install filters and otherwise help the community deal with the water crisis. Sanders made this promise.


SANDERS: All I can say is if you check my record going back a long time, I have stood with those who are hurting. I have stood with those who have no money.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where would you like the water at, Ma'am?


KEITH: A few hours before the debate, Flint residents were going through their near daily ritual, picking up bottled water from Flint's Fire Station Number Three. Marrio Thomas has four kids, and he's worried about them. When it comes to politics, he's undecided, but he knows he won't support Hillary Clinton.

MARRIO THOMAS: I don't really feel the authenticity of which she's doing. I feel that she's doing this because this is her job, you know? This - I am - I'm a Democrat; it's my job to win people over and - you know?

KEITH: But others we spoke to, like Johnnie Welch, knew specifically what Clinton had been doing in Flint and liked it.

JOHNNIE WELCH: She sent one of her top aides when this first broke out, you know? Her daughter came and went to the hospital and stuff. To me, they seemed as though they had genuine concern, you know, about the Flint water.

KEITH: By the end of tomorrow night, we'll know how all this focus on Flint worked out for the candidates. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And as election results come in tomorrow night from Michigan and other states, we'll keep you posted. We hope you'll join us here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.