Hillary Clinton calls Flint water crisis 'immoral'

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton vowed Sunday to help Flint residents recover from a debilitating water contamination crisis during a campaign speech at a predominately African-American church on the city’s northwest side.

“I will not for one minute forget about you or forget about your children,” Clinton told members of the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church during a community meeting that was paired with the church’s morning worship service. “Because what happened here should have never happened anywhere.”

Clinton spoke to a crowd packed into church pews for about 20 minutes but did not make the kind of direct criticism of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder that she has made in presidential debates and media interviews since the city’s lead-tainted water crisis exploded into a national story a month ago.

“We don’t yet know how many children have been affected by lead poisoning. We don’t yet know how many challenges they will face in the years ahead,” Clinton said. “But ... we know that even a single child suffering from lead poisoning due to the state’s neglect is one child too many.”

Clinton said she would continue to advocate for a $600 million aid plan authored by U.S. Senate Democrats that would provide $200 million for health care and education support for Flint children exposed to toxic lead metals, which can cause brain damage and developmental delays. Another $400 million would go toward repairing Flint’s water pipeline infrastructure.

“This has to be a national priority not just for today or tomorrow,” Clinton said. “Clean water is not optional, my friends.”

Clinton left the campaign trail in New Hampshire, where she lags Sanders in polls ahead of the Granite State’s Tuesday primary, to travel to the Flint church.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Michigan has a large population of African-Americans who traditionally have backed Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5, setting off a flurry of efforts to deliver bottled water and faucet filters to Flint’s 39,000 households. The Republican governor has been working to secure state and federal funding to pay for the water relief supplies, medical needs of children and prepare for a massive undertaking of replacing lead-soldered pipes blamed for the lead contamination.

Clinton addressed the deep distrust Flint residents have of state and local government for allowing the Flint River water to go untreated for corrosion control that caused lead to leach into the drinking water.

For nearly two years, Clinton said, “you were told, Flint was told, the water was safe.”

“Repairing trust is as important as repairing pipes,” Clinton said.

Flint resident Carol Gardner, 60, said Clinton’s appearance in Flint is a “boost to morale” and will likely serve her politically in Michigan’s March 8 Democratic primary against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“She would be totally remiss if she didn’t stop by here,” Gardner said. “It’s a Democratic city. I think she has genuine concern.”

Ground zero in Dem race

Clinton has been railing against the Snyder administration for weeks, using the crisis in Flint to suggest that Snyder would have acted sooner to Flint’s 22-month-old water troubles had it been an affluent white suburb of Detroit.

“What happened in Flint is immoral,” Clinton said. “The children of Flint are just as precious as the children of any other part of America.”

Flint’s April 2014 switch from Detroit’s Lake Huron water to Flint River water sparked immediate complaints from residents about the smell, taste and brownish color of the water.

In October, the Snyder administration helped the city switch back to Detroit water after state health officials confirmed independent studies showing dangerous levels of toxic lead metal in the city’s water and the bloodstreams of residents.

Flint’s water crisis has become ground zero for Clinton and Sanders’ battle for winning Michigan’s Democratic presidential nominating delegates next month. The Democratic National Committee is planning a Clinton-Sanders debate in Flint on March 6, two days before Michigan Democrats choose a nominee.

“Frankly, I think it could be ground zero in the campaign across the country,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said after Clinton’s speech. “What’s happened here is an example of what happens when you leave certain cities, certain communities and certain populations out of the national conversation.”

“The reason this crisis occurred is because the people at the state government just really didn’t think about the people in Flint,” Kildee added. “Any time a national campaign can focus on the problems of a place like Flint, we’re going to end up with better policy.”

Ronna Romney McDaniel, who chairs the Michigan Republican Party, said Clinton’s campaign trail diversion to Flint was based on “political calculation.”

“She’s down in the polls in New Hampshire and it makes sense to come to Flint,” McDaniel said in an interview Sunday. “Everything in her world is based on political calculus.”

Clinton, mayor meet

Before speaking to the congregation, Clinton said she met with Mayor Karen Weaver and three Flint mothers of children whose health has worsened since the city switched water sources in April 2014 under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager.

“When I looked at the children of one of them, I was just heartsick,” Clinton said.

After the speech, Clinton held a private meeting in the church with Weaver and a group of Flint elected officials. Reporters were allowed to attend a brief portion of the meeting.

Weaver, who has endorsed Clinton for president, credited Clinton’s public comments about Flint’s water crisis for prodding state and federal officials to take action. Clinton is the only presidential candidate who has personally reached out to offer assistance, Weaver said.

“You elevated this issue to a whole other level for us and we are eternally grateful to you for having done that,” Weaver told Clinton.

Sanders also has railed against the actions of the Snyder administration, calling for the governor to resign.

“People have talked about the governor needing to resign, but you have put action to those words,” Weaver told Clinton. “She came when no one else has come.”

Before Clinton’s arrival, the Rev. Kenneth Stewart delivered a sermon to the congregation that routinely referenced Flint’s lead-contamination crisis.

But Flint residents have long complained that state officials ignored their pleas for months — a sentiment Clinton has used to rail against Snyder and make Flint’s water crisis a presidential campaign issue.

“Flint is on the waiting list. Been waiting for two years,” Stewart said in his fiery sermon. “Don’t give up, because it’s going to be worth the wait.”

Church member Tonika Russell, 30, said Flint’s contaminated water led her and her husband to delay starting a family.

They are pouring their savings into purchasing an expensive reverse osmosis water filtration system for their home and waiting to have children until government agencies deem Flint’s water safe to drink unfiltered, she said.

“We’re not going to let this define who we are,” said Russell, a guidance counselor at the University of Michigan-Flint. “But I don’t know when I’ll feel safe to drink the water again.”

The Associated Press contributed.

CNN to air Flint Democratic debate

The Democratic National Committee announced Sunday morning that CNN will air the March 6 presidential primary debate in Flint between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The DNC has not announced a location or exact time for the Sunday night debate, which will occur two days before Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary.

Details on how to get tickets to attend the debate also have not yet been announced.