O'Rourke to Flint: 'This country has your back'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Flint — Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke laid out his plans Wednesday for a host of national and social issues for residents packed into a business incubator space in the city's downtown. 

Fresh off a presidential forum in Detroit earlier Wednesday, O’Rourke spoke on immigration reform, access to education, affordable health care, protections for the gay community and climate change, which he called the “greatest existential challenge” facing the nation and planet.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke addresses a crowd during a town hall at the Ferris Wheel building in downtown Flint on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

But O’Rourke said little at the town hall about the Flint water crisis that’s kept the city in national headlines since late 2015.

He took questions from the roughly 200 attendees at the Ferris Wheel building in Flint for a little over an hour. 

“I want to make sure this country has your back so that you can deliver the best possible instruction and care for our kids and the future of this great nation,” the former Texas congressman told teachers in the crowd. 

O'Rourke became the third Democratic presidential hopeful to hold a public event in Flint after U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York went there July 12 as part of a three-city tour of Michigan and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visited in June.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders visited Flint in 2016 in the wake of the city's lead-contaminated water crisis, which also was linked to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 individuals. In the same year, the city also hosted a Clinton-Sanders debate before Michigan's primary.

During O'Rourke's town hall, questions ranged from protections for the LGBTQ community to better education options for people with disabilities and ways to provide more creative learning options in schools.

Alternative trends in education would foster the full emotional and social formation of a child and allow for more learning options in schools, O’Rourke said.

“It doesn’t prioritize high-pressure, high-stakes standardized tests that in no way effectively measure that teacher’s performance or that child’s potential,” he said.

O’Rourke told reporters after the town hall that he spoke with Mayor Karen Weaver prior to the gathering about the status of lead pipeline replacements in Flint and the challenges of ensuring replacements in older homes. 

“This is a crisis in our country right now and our administration will spend whatever it takes to meet it so we can guarantee the public health of this country,” O’Rourke told the media.

He said he also heard “about what is going right in Flint” including innovation, investment “and a real fierce pride that I saw in everyone who talked about their hometown today.”

The visit from any candidate ensures that Flint “stays in the news and on the radar” and allows residents to “underscore that we’re still in the middle of a crisis,” said Claire McClinton, a 70-year-old Flint resident and General Motors Co. retiree. 

McClinton, who carried a T-shirt that said “Flint is still broken,” said she was disappointed O’Rourke didn’t speak more on the Flint water crisis and policies that could lessen the burden on people affected by the lead-tainted water. But she said the candidate took time out after his address to listen to her concerns.

“You could look at it as that he didn’t really have a narrative to present about Flint but on the other hand he said ‘I want to hear from you,’” she said. “That was an opportunity for him to hear.”

For Flint resident Breion Jones, the discussion of issues unrelated to the Flint water crisis was a real opportunity to show the city can be identified with more than the lead that leached into its water. 

“If anything, it’s a tool to spread more awareness and gives you an idea of the kind of city Flint has been,” said Jones, a 33-year-old Flint native who designs tennis shoes. 

Brieon Jones, 33, of Flint, asks Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke how he plans to develop more creative educational opportunities in schools during a town hall at the Ferris Wheel building in downtown Flint on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

Her former Flint Central High School classmate Shay Oliver agreed. The aspiring fashion designer said O’Rourke and other candidates’ willingness to come to Flint and listen to residents showed their continued investment in the city. But Oliver remained undecided ahead of O’Rourke’s remarks. 

“I wanted to just get his point of view to see what his plan is for our community,” Oliver said. “Hopefully, this will help me make a decision or get closer to a decision.”

O’Rourke was the first Democratic presidential candidate this year to visit Michigan in March, when he visited Ferndale, Detroit and Center Line less than a week after launching his campaign. The state is expected to play a critical role in the 2020 elections given Republican President Donald Trump’s narrow victory in Michigan in 2016. 

O'Rourke returns next week to Detroit for the debates. He insisted at the NAACP presidential forum earlier Wednesday that he is not falling behind other Democrats.

“We have been a long shot before, counted down before," O'Rourke said. "But through our persistence and our courage, I know that we can come through for the American people and serve this great country."