Clinton joins call for Snyder resignation

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Sunday called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over the Flint water contamination crisis, joining fellow candidate Bernie Sanders in backing his ouster.

“I agree the governor should resign or be recalled, and we should support the efforts of citizens attempting to achieve that,” Clinton said during the CNN presidential debate in Flint, which began with a 25-minute discussion on the water crisis.

Clinton also urged Snyder to tap into the state’s $611 million Rainy Day fund to provide additional aid for Flint, noting that the money was set aside in case of emergency.

“It is raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required,” the former secretary of state said from the stage of the Whiting auditorium.

Sanders, who first called for Snyder to resign in January, renewed that call Sunday and criticized the governor for what he called a “dereliction of duty.” The Vermont U.S. senator said recent talks with Flint residents have “shattered” him.

“It was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned,” he said. “That is clearly not what this country should be about.”

Snyder has vowed to stay on the job and resolve the crisis, a position he reiterated Sunday night during the debate.

"In a few days, political candidates will be leaving Flint and Michigan,” the governor said in a statement shared on social media. “They will not be staying to help solve the crisis, but I am committed to the people of Flint. I will fix this crisis and help move Flint forward. Long-term solutions are what the people of Flint need and what I am focused on delivering for them.”

Snyder and the state Legislature have sent roughly $70 million to Flint since October. Spokesman Ari Adler noted the governor has proposed additional funding in his 2017 budget and appealed a federal decision to deny major disaster assistance.

“We have dedicated the state’s former budget surplus to Flint,” Adler said when asked about Clinton’s Rainy Day comments. “The people of Flint need help from every level of government since every level of government let them down.”

Host Anderson Cooper opened the debate by describing Flint as a city where “the tap water is toxic,” stating that public servants not only failed to stop the crisis, they made decisions that created it.

The state Department of Environmental Quality failed to ensure proper corrosion control treatments were added when the city began using Flint River water in April 2014. The harsh water ended up leaching lead from pipes and into tap water.

Records show the federal Environmental Protection Agency was aware of early concerns with lead in Flint water but minimized internal concerns over the state’s interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

Asked whether she would fire the head of the EPA if she were president, Clinton said she did not know “how high up” it went but would launch an investigation to figure out who knew what and when.

“But as far as it goes, they should be relieved because they failed this city,” she said of the EPA officials.

Sanders was more succinct.

“President Sanders would fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act appropriately,” he said.

Both candidates said they were not qualified to say whether criminal should be levied over the Flint water crisis but said they would support prosecution if warranted by an investigation.

Sanders and Clinton agreed that the Flint water crisis should lead to a broader discussion about infrastructure replacement and lead pipes.

Sanders said that as president he would ensure that the EPA test every water system in the United States and said he would have a plan to rebuild unsafe systems.

Clinton, noting that lead is also found in soil and paint in old homes, said she would go further.

“We will commit to a priority to change the water systems and we will commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere,” she said.

The Flint water crisis has become a central issue in the Democratic campaign, prompting visits from both candidates and television commercials highlighting their time in the city. Republicans have accused Democrats of politicizing the issue, a charge they both disputed Sunday night.

Sanders noted he held a Flint town hall meeting last month that was “as non-political as I could make it” and said he understood the fear that the focus on Flint will disappear when the CNN cameras leave town.

“Check my record, going back a long time, I have stood with those who are hurting,” he said. “I have stood with those who have no money, and I have taken on virtually every powerful special interest in America.”

Clinton noted that she is helping Flint Mayor Karen Weaver secure private donations for a pipe replacement initiative as a “bridge” while the city awaits state or federal funding.

“Throughout my public career I have been evening the odds for people every way I could,” Clinton said.

The debate setting provided a backdrop for a day of intense focus on the city of Flint. Activists rallied outside the venue and organizations held a series of related events around the city.

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, in a pre-debate news conference, renewed his threat to promote “civil disobedience” if Snyder does not unveil by March 22 “a timeline, a deadline and a price tag” to replace damaged underground pipes in Flint.

“It is important for us to understand that the two central characters in this debate are not Secretary Clinton or Sen. Sanders, but rather Governor Snyder and the citizens of Flint,” Brooks said.

In a statement released after the debate, Snyder outlined specific steps the state is taking to address the Flint crisis, saying that political candidates “will not be staying to help ... but I am committed to the people of Flint.”

Snyder has proposed more than $230 million in spending for Flint residents, with $70 million secured since October, the statement said.

The funding includes money for free bottled water, filters and testing kits; $30 million toward crediting residents’ water bills; nurses in Flint schools; mobile food pantries and nutritional programs; new fixtures in schools, daycares, nursing homes and hospitals; an independent insfrastructure study; testing and treatment for children with high lead levels; and $2 million to help with initial lead pipe replacement.

joosting@detroitnews.com