Bernie Sanders on Flint water crisis: ‘Never again’

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Bernie Sanders brought his Democratic presidential campaign here Thursday to give a national voice to those affected by the contaminated water crisis 12 days before Michigan’s primary.

Sanders took valuable time to campaign in Michigan instead of South Carolina, where there is a primary on Saturday.

“I hope people will look at Flint and say: Never again,” the U.S. senator from Vermont said during a campaign event at the Woodside Church. “We have seven beautiful grandchildren. And to hear what is happening in children in this community is so horrific, it is so painful, it is hard to discuss.”

Sanders held an hour-long, freewheeling discussion with nearly 350 audience members and supporters -- many of whom waited hours in the cold to see him. Some sprang up from the pews to answer leading questions from Sanders, who is battling Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

The national profile that Flint has gained in the past two months has drawn attention to other communities where lead exposure and lead poisoning also are problems.

“While Flint may be the canary in the coal mine, there are a lot of other canaries,” Sanders said. “... I once again hope that out of the tragedy will come fundamental changes in cities and towns all across this country.”

Sanders called the Flint lead problem “one of the more serious public health crisis in the modern history of this country” and wondered aloud, “how could it happen?” He again called for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign.

Snyder has apologized for crisis and vowed to fix it.

Sanders and Clinton have made Flint’s water contamination ground zero for their campaigns in Michigan. They are trying to fire up their party’s liberal base who are upset with Snyder’s handling of the crisis.

A March 6 debate between Sanders and Clinton also is set to be held in Flint and hosted by CNN.

For most of the event, the 74-year-old, self-declared democratic socialist held a question-and-answer session with the audience that was unusual for presidential politics. Sanders asked questions directly to the crowd, and people shouted back answers that often elicited an “I see” from the candidate.

Nakiya Wakes, 40, told Sanders she believes she last year lost her twins during pregnancy to the lead in the water and that her son has been suspended from school 56 times after testing positive for lead. Others complained about non-working water filters, high water bills and the fear that Flint will disappear from the national conscience after the campaign ends.

“I believe that he cares,” Patrice Katrak, 49, of Fenton said after the forum she attended with her 19-year-old son and husband.

“You can feel it. I feel the emotion in his voice. He isn’t a politician that talks the talk. I think he’s running because he wants to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Clinton holds a double-digit polling lead in South Carolina and is considered ahead in Michigan, where the primary is March 8. But Katrak and others say they want Sanders to stay the course.

“I don’t think that it ends in South Carolina or ends on Super Tuesday,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of areas in the country and when the people in those areas hear his message and look at his record ... they will see the genuineness in what he’s saying.”

The Michigan Republican Party warned before the event that Sanders should not politicize the public health crisis.

“Politicizing this issue does nothing to help the families and residents affected by this crisis,” Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement. “Sen. Sanders should focus on solutions instead of trying to play political catch up with Hillary Clinton on this issue.”

Earl Logan, 31, of Flint, addressed Sanders during the forum and implored the candidate not to forget about Flint and that it’s much more than donating water.

“Of course it’s political, but bottled water is something that will help us get something to drink, but it’s not a solution,” Logan said after the forum about Sander’s appearance. “I feel like it’s pacifying us and we aren’t dealing with the real issue like the lead pipes.”

Before the event, Walt Peake, 61, of Flint, said he is not “willing to concede” the nomination and nor should Sanders. The candidate needs “to talk about Flint and what it means to have the national focus here.”

“I’m not really 100 percent sure that I trust Hillary,” Peake added. “It’s the old Clinton stuff. It seems like wherever they go ... There’s just that nagging sense of what’s going to happen next.”

Sanders was last in Michigan on Feb. 15 for two rallies at Eastern Michigan University and the United Auto Workers Local 600 union hall in Dearborn.

During the speech in Dearborn, Sanders proposed a $1 trillion nationwide spending program to fix the country’s crumbling infrastructure and likened the cost to the Iraq war, which he opposed and Clinton voted to authorize as a U.S. senator from New York.

Kendra Fair, 19, of Grand Blanc didn’t let a recent knee surgery or crutches keep her from the Thursday Sanders forum. She said she couldn’t imagine voting for anyone else in her first election.

“I’m a college student and loans drag me down every day. Everyone that I know that’s in my age group, they are voting for Bernie.”

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