Chelsea Clinton: Flint challenge will last generations

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Four days after her mother visited Flint, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton stopped by the city Thursday, saying the Flint water crisis was “heartbreaking” and calling on Americans to be outraged by the lead contamination there.

“It’s heartbreaking to me as an American. It’s heartbreaking to me as a mother, as someone who has a 16-month-old daughter,” Clinton said after she toured Hurley Children’s Center during a campaign swing through Michigan for her mother, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“This is a catastrophe by any definition. I’m going to keep talking about this ... not only here in Flint but across the country because this is something every American should care about.”

Later Thursday during a stop at YouthVille Detroit, an after school engagement program for the community’s at-risk and underserved youth, Chelsea Clinton said her mother is running for president to ensure disenfranchised children have opportunities and support.

Chelsea Clinton tours Hurley Children's Center in Flint, Michigan, on Thursday, Feb 11, 2016, with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Lead poisoning, Clinton said, is an issue that her mother kept in focus more than 40 years. She cited the longstanding commitment while rejecting assertions that her mother may not be seen as trustworthy by some voters.

“To me, that is a real indication of trust. When someone has a public mission that has been a motivating force for their whole life, I would hope people would resonate with that,” she said.

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All of Flint’s nearly 9,000 children age 6 and under are assumed to have been exposed to the lead-contaminated water and to need health, nutritional and educational services to decrease the possible damage.

“This is a challenge that will last generations,” Clinton said, who is pregnant with a second child.

Clinton met with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley pediatrician who discovered elevated lead levels in Flint children in August after the city began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014. Her findings eventually prompted the state to admit there was a lead exposure problem and switch back to Detroit’s water system.

“When you talk about lead, this is a decades-long, multigenerational problem and needs that long-term investment,” Hanna-Attisha said. “And we need it now because we’re two years too late.”

Chelsea said she is most concerned about the “most vulnerable Americans,” such as low-income children.

These children, she said, “are going to carry a burden that is not of their making for the rest of their lives. And children who weren’t even born when this crisis started, children who were newborns when this crisis started ... how could anyone not feel moral urgency about this?”

Hillary Clinton has spent the past month highlighting the Flint water crisis in television interviews and presidential debates. She visited Flint on Sunday, telling an African-American church audience that “I will not for one minute forget about you or forget about your children. Because what happened here should have never happened anywhere.”

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel has blasted the former secretary of state as wanting to profit politically and financially from the struggles of Flint residents.

“Hillary Clinton is a divider,” McDaniel said this week. “She flies in to Flint, gives a speech, and flies out. That is not leadership. That is not offering solutions. That is political gamesmanship of the worst kind.”

Democratic presidential rival, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also has decried the crisis in Flint and called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. The governor has repeatedly apologized for the state’s role in the Flint crisis and has said he plans to stay on the job to fix the problem.

Chelsea Clinton on Thursday did not say whether her mother believed Snyder should resign, saying that the focus should be on what the local leaders need to support Flint’s children now and in the future.

In Detroit, where Clinton was joined by Mayor Mike Duggan for a 30-minute talk with students at the YouthVille facility, she told the group that they should dream big and register to vote to ensure that they have a voice.

Clinton told the youths about the first time she was asked whether she’d pursue public office during a political rally in Arkansas, at the age of 3.

“I think I said something like, ‘Thank you ma’am, but I’m 3,’ ” Clinton recounted. “It’s a question young people should be asking each other and themselves.”

Clinton also spoke of the “ordinary and extraordinary” experience of growing up in the White House. The only child added she has maintained a close bond with her parents, two people she’s watched “try to solve problems their whole lives.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com