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Dearborn — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Monday the lead contamination of Flint’s water underscores the need for a $1 trillion nationwide campaign to upgrade and fix America’s aging infrastructure.

Sanders met with Flint residents before his Monday afternoon rally at Eastern Michigan University and said one woman talked about how her child’s learning ability has “markedly deteriorated” since toxic lead began leaching into the city’s water supply nearly two years ago.

“Imagine being the mom of a bright young daughter and seeing that child mentally deteriorate in front of your eyes — from being a bright good student to a student being, I believe, in special ed,” Sanders said Monday night at a rally at the United Auto Workers Local 600 union hall in Dearborn.

Sanders did not go to Flint on Monday, as his Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, did last Sunday.

The Vermont senator met with a group of Flint residents at the EMU Convocation Center before speaking to a crowd of 9,300 supporters, his campaign said.

“When I left that meeting I said ‘What country am I living in? Is this the United States of America?’ ” Sanders said. “I fear very much that Flint is the canary in the coal mine here.”

Sanders equated his proposed $1 trillion spending on water infrastructure, sewers, roads and bridges to a similar amount spent waging the Iraq war, which Clinton voted for as a U.S. senator and Sanders did not.

“If we can rebuild villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can damn well rebuild Flint, Michigan,” Sanders said in Dearborn.

Sanders said the plan would create 13 million “decent paying jobs,” though he did not say how he would pay for the plan.

In Ypsilanti earlier in the day, Sanders’s Flint remarks triggered chants from the crowd for the recall or arrest of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I don’t want to be overly political … I’ve called for Snyder’s resignation, that’s fine,” Sanders said. “But if the local government cannot protect those children, if the state government cannot protect those children, then the federal government better get in.”

The Snyder administration has admitted to failing to require corrosion control chemicals in Flint’s water to prevent lead contamination. Flint stopped using river water in October, when the state confirmed independent research showing dangerous lead levels in the water supply.

Sanders and Clinton have made the water crisis in Flint a focal point for their campaigns in Michigan ahead of the state’s March 8 primary.

“I really did not know how ugly, how horrible and how terrible what is going on in Flint,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ appearance at EMU comes as his campaign opened five offices across the state over the past week in an effort to compete with Clinton, who has the backing of most of Michigan’s prominent Democratic leaders.

Sanders supporters said his lack of support from established Democratic politicians is what is so appealing to them.

“She might as well be a Republican — she doesn’t hold my values,” said Chelsea Townes, 26, of Lansing, a Democratic state legislative aide. “As a female, I’m deeply offended that I should support (Clinton) because she’s a woman.”

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Bernie Sanders talks about the Flint water crisis during his rally at the Convocation Hall on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

A political football

The 74-year-old Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic socialist but votes with Senate Democrats, touched on his unexpected campaign success after he soundly defeated Clinton in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary by 22 percentage points and lost by a whisker to her in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

“When we began, we were 30 points down in New Hampshire. Didn’t quite turn out that way,” Sanders said. “When we began, we were way down in Michigan. It ain’t going to turn out that way.”

Later in his EMU speech, Sanders highlighted Flint’s aging water piping system in calling for an overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure.

“Flint, Michigan, may be the worst example of a collapsing infrastructure, but it is not the only example,” Sanders said.

Sanders has called for Snyder to resign because of the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint as well as the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Flint area that may be linked to the switch to river water in April 2014. The city is now back on Detroit’s water system. By contrast, Clinton has not called for Snyder’s resignation but has called the situation in Flint “immoral.”

Clinton has raised the issue several times in debates and television interviews in the past month, and visited Flint. Earlier Monday, Clinton’s campaign unveiled a one-minute web video featuring Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and residents talking about the city’s plight.

Rodger Will, a Democrat from Grosse Isle Township who attended Sanders’ Dearborn speech, said he thinks both campaigns are overusing Flint’s water crisis on the campaign trail.

“I think it’s turning into a political football,” Will said. “Hillary’s done more pandering for votes than Bernie (on Flint).”

Aysha Williams, 22, of Ypsilanti attended the Sanders rally Monday and said she appreciated that he highlighted the effects of lead poisoning on the brain development of Flint children.

“It shows he cares and is aware of what’s going on around him,” Williams said.

Michigan Republicans have accused Sanders and Clinton of using Flint’s water crisis as a political prop in an effort to turn out the Democratic base in next month’s primary.

State GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said Sanders “has shirked his responsibility” as a member of a Senate committee that oversees the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA stayed silent for months while high lead levels in Flint’s water was known by regulators, The Detroit News reported last month.

“He should be calling for an investigation into the agency’s responsibility on this issue,” Anderson said in a statement.

Delivering ‘radical’ ideas

The EMU basketball arena has a 9,500-person capacity for concerts that use the floor — and the Vermont senator’s political rock-star fame attracted droves of supporters who had nearly filled the floor.

A local fire marshal cut off access to the arena at the 9,391-person capacity, according to Sanders’ campaign.

“I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see the next president of the United States in person,” said Kale Schafer, 24, of Saginaw.

UM nurse Katie Scott of the Michigan Nurses Association warmed up the crowd by announcing her union’s endorsement of Sanders.

“Bernie is the only candidate who recognizes that our country’s health care system is broken beyond repair,” Scott said. “Only Bernie has made a commitment to expand Medicare for all.”

Sanders delivered his standard stump speech, vowing to deliver “radical” ideas that include three months paid maternity leave for mothers, a $15 minimum wage and free public college tuition.

“I’ll tell you how we’re going to pay for it — we’re going to impose a tax on Wall Street speculation,” Sanders said about his tuition plan.

Clinton has said she wants to improve the existing health insurance system instead of pursuing Sanders’ approach of eliminating private health insurance companies in favor of a government-run health care system.

Vanessa Gardner, a 34-year-old teacher from Palmyra Township, said she’s not quite convinced Sanders can deliver on his promises, but she likes what he’s talking about.

“We kind of need those big ideas right now,” Gardner said. “Even if they’re far-fetched, it’s a good place to start.”

Sanders did not mention Clinton by name during either speech, but said his ideas can be accomplished when the voting public puts pressure on elected officials, corporations and “big media.”

“When the people lead, the leaders follow,” Sanders said.

The EMU rally attracted a large contingent of college students from EMU and nearby University of Michigan.

Konain Tayab, 18, of Canton Township said Sanders’ support of marijuana legalization, a $15-per-hour minimum wage and free public college tuition appeals to him.

“A lot of people in college like all of those things,” said Tayab, a biology sophomore at EMU. “He knows how to talk to college students.”

John Bowker, 58, of Ann Arbor, said he’s supporting Sanders because he’s a fresh face on the national political scene, despite being a member of Congress for 26 years.

“We’ve had the Clintons, we’ve had the Bushes, it’s time to move on to something new,” Bowker said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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