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Flint's Democratic Debate Felt More Like a Town Hall

Questions posed by locals about the city’s water crisis lent an unusual urgency to Sunday night’s debate.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders at the end of their debate Sunday night. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

It’s pretty common for voters to appear on American presidential debates, querying candidates about jobs and healthcare to lend the televised production a down-to-earth sensibility. But during Sunday night’s Democratic Presidential Debate in Flint, Michigan—where a lead-in-water crisis brewing for nearly two years is far from resolution—questions from Flint locals gave the night an unusual sense of urgency.

The best example came from a public housing manager, Mikki Wade, who spoke to the candidates in detail about the immense challenges of using bottled water for cooking, cleaning, brushing her teeth—every essential task.

"Once the pipes are replaced, I'm not so sure I would be comfortable ever drinking the water,” she said. Then she asked, "If elected president, what course will you take to regain my trust in the government?"

In two remarkable sentences, Ms. Wade was essentially asking the candidates to translate the broad, generalized language of the debate stage to something more intimate and real. The candidates responded with varying degrees of success.

“I will triple check everything,” Clinton responded, explaining that she would work intensely with officials she herself trusted in order to ensure that Flint’s water system was fixed and safe to use. She also announced the launch of the Flint WaterWorks initiative, a program developed by Ms. Clinton and the city of Flint to provide jobs to local youth distributing clean water to local families.

Sanders, meanwhile, focused his response on government accountability and financial distribution. “If local government does not have the resources, and if the state government does not act… then the federal government acts,” he said. He also connected Flint’s water woes and, later in the night, the decline of Detroit, to Clinton-backed international trade policies such as NAFTA. (This led Clinton to point out that Sanders, unlike her, hadn’t backed the 2009 auto industry bailout. Sanders swung back by reminding Clinton that she’d also supported the Wall Street bailouts, which he’d opposed.)

Responding to other questions from locals (including Leeanne Walters, the mother of four who was the first to alert the EPA about Flint’s water) as well as from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper and host Don Lemon, Clinton largely addressed the tangible features of the water crisis, stressing the need for infrastructure investment and funding lead-removal programs. Sanders, again, tended to go after the structural elements that begat the crisis—the policies, the government neglect, the funding disparities. The responses underscored longstanding differences in the candidates’ rhetoric—Clinton more practical, Sanders more philosophical.

When it came to one question on the minds of many Michigan voters, the candidates agreed firmly. In his opening statement, Sanders called on Governor Rick Snyder to resign, just before Clinton spoke. "Amen to that," she said.

Did the night have a clear winner? More than either politician, it was probably the citizens of Flint. After years of disregard by leaders at all levels of government, they got to force a potential president to take their problems seriously. Yoni Appelbaum writes at the Atlantic:

Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, used the end of the debate to announce that a union fund had pledged $25 million to help fix the pipes in Flint. That may be as positive an outcome as any presidential debate will generate this year.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.