Clinton-Sanders fight in Michigan focuses on Flint

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Flint promises to become ground zero for the Michigan campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential hopefuls compete for the support of liberal voters furious about the city’s water contamination crisis.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves as she arrives at a campaign event on Tuesday in Nashua, N.H.

Clinton dispatched this week two campaign aides to Flint to gather information from local leaders on how the former secretary of state can help. It marked the second time in four weeks Clinton officials focused on the predominately African-American city besieged by toxic lead metal leaching into its drinking water.

The moves come five weeks before Michigan’s March 8 primary.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can help really elevate the important issues that are going on,” Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s national political director, said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News.

Renteria and Clinton’s African-American outreach director, LaDavia Drane, spent Monday and Tuesday in Flint, meeting with local officials and attending an event with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

“Means a lot that senior members of @HillaryClinton’s campaign came to the rally in Flint today,” Simmons wrote Monday on Twitter.

For nearly a month, Clinton has been drawing media attention to Flint’s water catastrophe, from criticizing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s handling of the crisis to calling for a debate with Sanders in Flint.

Clinton has said she waded into the issue because she wants to help Flint residents get their pleas heard by government officials, though Republican have accused her of using Flint as a political prop and failing to help get more federal aid through the Obama administration. Obama officials have rejected Snyder’s request for $96 million in major disaster aid as well as an expansion of the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program for Flint youngsters.

“They want to call it politics. She calls it getting results,” Renteria said Tuesday. “That’s the way that we could help, which is to make people aware of what’s going on in Flint.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver endorsed Clinton over Sanders last month after Renteria first visited Flint City Hall.

Sanders, who has gone beyond Clinton’s criticism to demand that Snyder resign, plans to open a campaign office in Flint ahead of Michigan’s March 8 primary, said Ryan Hughes, the new state director for the Vermont U.S. senator’s Michigan campaign.

“We’ve been very strong on this, and I think Flint is first and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Hughes, who was in Flint over the weekend visiting with campaign volunteers. “The focus needs to be on the people on the ground, not on politics. That’s, I think, what the senator will be focused on.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, and his wave Jane acknowledge the in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday night.

Sanders has not campaigned in Michigan yet this election cycle, but Hughes expects the situation to change after next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and the Feb. 27 primary in South Carolina.

Clinton eked out a narrow victory Monday night over Sanders in the Iowa caucuses, intensifying a battle for the Democratic nomination was she favored to win six months ago.

The two campaigns are still negotiating for additional televised debates.

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver has said the senator would meet Clinton on a debate stage in Michigan if she would debate Sanders in Brooklyn, New York, in April.

“I think it would be fantastic to bring more attention to the people of Flint,” Hughes said of a potential debate in Flint.

In recent weeks, Clinton has sought to highlight her leadership experience from first lady to head of the U.S. State Department in drawing contrasts to Sanders’ 25-year career in Congress. The Flint water crisis has given her a chance to show she has the ability to help, Renteria said.

“That’s just a really important message,” Renteria told The News. “She has spent a lot of time really raising up voices that other people don’t hear.”

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