Michigan may get a Democratic debate in Flint

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Ames, Iowa — Michigan appears headed toward getting a March 3 Democratic presidential debate in Flint if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepts U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ demand for an April debate in her home state of New York.

Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a "get out the caucus" event at Iowa State University on Saturday.

Clinton’s presidential campaign stepped up its national spotlight on Flint’s lead-contaminated water on Saturday by calling for another Democratic debate to be held in the crisis-stricken Michigan city. The campaign of Sanders quickly responded by saying its acceptance of the site hinges on the secretary of state’s agreement to debate April 14 in Brooklyn, New York.

The Flint debate would happen between the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries in Southern states and Michigan’s March 8 primary.

Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Saturday that Flint should be considered as the site for another debate after the candidates agreed to debate Thursday in New Hampshire before the Granite State’s Feb. 9 primary.

“We should use the spotlight of the presidential campaign to keep the focus on Flint, and to lift up the historic underlying issues that Flint and too many other predominantly low-income communities of color across America are struggling with every day,” Podesta said Saturday in a statement.

But the Sanders campaign made it clear that as long as the Democratic National Committee is changing the 2016 rules about primary debates, it wants four new dates — three of which have apparently been accepted by the former secretary of state’s campaign including the February forum in New Hampshire and a May 25 debate in California. The Vermont senator’s campaign said the Clinton campaign had dragged its heels on accepting Sanders’ proposed March 3 debate in Michigan until Saturday.

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“The Clinton campaign, after not accepting Michigan, now says they want it,” Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a Saturday statement. “We are pleased to do it on March 3 before the Michigan primary provided the Clinton campaign will agree to Brooklyn, New York, on April 14. Why won’t they debate in Brooklyn? What’s the matter with Brooklyn?”

Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York, and Sanders are in negotiations to hold additional debates in what’s now expected to be a protracted battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders has noted that Clinton refused to hold more debate for months until Sanders became competitive in Iowa and jumped ahead of her in the polls in New Hampshire.

Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, said Saturday that Clinton is “using Flint as a political prop” and noted Clinton could have come to Flint on Jan. 12 when she was last in Michigan.

“Did she head to Flint to offer assistance? Of course not,” McDaniel said in an email to Michigan Republicans. “She held a private fundraiser in Detroit with Michael Bolton. That is not leadership. That is pandering at its worst.”

Additional Democratic presidential debates are already scheduled for Feb. 11 in Wisconsin and March 9 in Florida. On Saturday, the two campaigns tentative agreed to hold a presidential debate next week in New Hampshire before the state’s first-in-the-nation primary.

“We want their voices to be heard in this campaign, and holding a debate in Flint would go a long way toward achieving that goal,” Podesta said. “These are issues that should be at the top of the agenda of our next president and must therefore be front and center in our debate.”

After the Sanders campaign responded to Podesta’s call for a debate in Flint, Podesta issued a second statement Saturday noting their opponent did not specifically agree to debate in Flint.

“We’re not sure why, but if they’d rather not debate in Flint, we’re certainly willing to mutually agree on three other locations,” Podesta said.

Since exploding into a national story earlier this month, Flint’s water crisis has been a top-of-mind subject for Democrats and progressives because Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has accepted a major share of the responsibility for lead contamination on his watch.

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On Wednesday, MSNBC’s liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow held a televised town hall meeting in Flint, calling the water crisis “a disaster of national proportions and the problem is not being fixed.” On that same evening, Sanders briefly mentioned Flint in calling for more investment in replacing aging infrastructure at a campaign rally in Mason City, Iowa.

Clinton has been railing against Snyder’s actions in Flint for the past three weeks. The governor has shot back, saying Clinton is politicizing the crisis for her own gain. Clinton and her campaign chairman have suggested her public comments about Flint prompted Snyder to step up his response earlier this month in a crisis that has engulfed his administration.

“It was only when the crisis was finally brought to national attention that real steps were taken to begin to address the immediate issues like access to clean water and health monitoring, and longer-term health and infrastructure challenges,” Podesta said Saturday.

Snyder weighed in Saturday afternoon on the squabbling between Clinton and Sanders hours after the federal government denied his request for expanding food and medical assistance for low-income Flint mothers and children.

“What will help Flint more than a political debate is expanding WIC and Medicaid to cover Flint children,” Snyder wrote on Twitter.

On Friday, Clinton called into a Flint radio station to talk about the city’s water crisis while campaigning in Iowa, where she’s in a tight battle with Sanders in Monday’s caucuses that kick off the presidential nomination voting.

The former secretary of state urged Snyder and Michigan lawmakers to tap the state’s $1 billion in surplus revenue to create a fund for the long-term health and educational needs of Flint children exposed to potential lead poisoning through the city’s water.

Sanders has called for Snyder to resign over his administration’s failure to require Flint to treat river water with corrosion controls that could have prevented toxic lead metal from leaching into the city’s drinking water supply.

The Clinton campaign called for a debate in Flint one day after the State Department said 22 email messages stored on Clinton’s private email server were “top secret,” resurrecting an issue Republicans have promised to use against her if she wins the Democratic nomination.

“Struggling in the polls and desperate to distract voters from the latest discovery that she had Top Secret emails on her homebrew email server, Hillary Clinton is again trying to politicize the Flint water crisis to serve her own political prospects,” McDaniel said in her Saturday night email to Michigan Republicans.


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