Clinton, Sanders Get Testy in Flint, Michigan, Ahead of Major Primary Contest on Tuesday

Sanders won the Maine Democratic caucuses as the two candidates stepped on to the debate stage Sunday night, where they battled over race, poverty and gun control.
March 7, 2016, 4:45pm
Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP

There was no name-calling or talk of penis size at last night's Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, but Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton still got feisty with each other on a host of issues ranging from gun control to the auto bailout ahead of the next primary contests on Tuesday.

A large portion of the debate was dedicated to address the ongoing water crisis in Flint, which hosted the debate Sunday night. The candidates heard directly from residents who are still stocking up on bottled water and are unable to freely bathe or wash vegetables amid concerns over contaminated pipes and lead poisoning. Both candidates called on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign over the scandal.

The candidates also discussed matters of race and income inequality in a city where 57 percent of the population is black and 42 percent of residents fall below the poverty line. Both Clinton and Sanders have seized on these topics in their race for the Democratic nomination and last night jumped into the fray with more candor than in previous debates.

In the opening moments of the debate, the Associated Press called a projected win for Sanders in Maine, which concluded its caucuses as the candidates took the stage. A day earlier, the senator achieved wins in the mostly white states of Kansas and Nebraska, while Clinton added Louisiana to the list of Southern states with large African-American communities that have thrown their support behind her.

At one point, CNN host Don Lemon grilled both candidates on white privilege, asking Clinton and Sanders repeatedly to "what racial blind spot do you have?" Both Democrats acknowledged that as white people, neither truly understood the prejudice and stresses black people face on a daily bases.

"I have been trying to talk about during this campaign is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have 'the talk' with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas," Clinton said.

Sanders agreed, adding: "When you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto. You don't know what it's like to be poor. You don't know what it's like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car."

The senator also touted being arrested while attempting to desegregate housing at the University of Chicago — a claim he argued "most candidates for president" would not "put this on their resume"

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The stress of a close primary race on both candidates was evident Sunday night with a few squabbles that had Twitter buzzing. A particularly tense exchange ensued after Clinton accused Sanders of casting a vote against the 2009 auto bailout and essentially choosing not to save the industry.

"When it came down to it, you were either for saving the auto industry or you were against it," Clinton said. "I voted to save the auto industry. If everyone had voted as he did I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it."

As Sanders in turn launched into a critique of Wall Street bailouts, which were tied to the auto bailout funds, Clinton interrupted him. "Excuse me, I'm talking," Sanders snapped.

2nd most Tweeted — Nick Pacilio (@NickPacilio)March 7, 2016

The pair also wrestled over gun control — a recurring thorn for Sanders, who hails from an open-carry and pro-hunting state. Clinton has frequently slammed the senator over his vote in favor of legislation that gave gun manufacturers immunity in lawsuits over gun violence. The issue came up again during Sunday's debate after moderator Anderson Cooper brought up a lawsuit that the families of the Sandy Hook shooting have filed against Remington, the manufacturer of the AR-15 used in the massacre.

"If you go to a gun store and you legally purchase a gun, and then, three days later, if you go out and start killing people, is the point of this lawsuit to hold the gun shop owner or the manufacturer of that gun liable? ... [I]f they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you're really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America," Sanders said. "I don't agree with that."

On Monday, the National Rifle Association tweeted its approval of Sanders's position at the debate, an awkward association for the senator who has touted his D-minus rating from the country's biggest gun lobby, including during Sunday's debate. The latest Gallup poll on gun legislation suggested 55 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control laws. Among Democrats, that figure jumped to 77 percent.

Sen. Sanders was spot-on in his comments about gun manufacturer liability/PLCAA — NRA (@NRA)March 7, 2016

The debate took an unusual turn toward its conclusion Sunday night, as one Michigan resident asked both candidates about their faith. In response to that query and a followup from Cooper, Sanders, who throughout his campaign has been reticent to talk about his family or personal life, revealed a personal story about his Jewish heritage.

"Look, my father's family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust," he said. "I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler's concentration camp."

"I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being," he added.

Clinton also addressed her faith, telling the audience that she often prays for the country's leaders "even when I disagree with them."

"I have said many times that, you know, I am a praying person, and if I haven't been during the time I was in the White House, I would have become one. Because it's very hard to imagine living under that kind of pressure without being able to fall back on prayer and on my faith," Clinton said.

The candidates face their next primary contest on Tuesday, when Michigan will vote along with Mississippi in the Democratic race. Both candidates are campaigning hard in Michigan, which holds 147 delegates and could help Clinton to expand her lead or for Sanders to gain some ground in the race for the nomination. Clinton is currently leading Sanders with 671 delegates compared with his 476 pledged delegates nationally. Last night the former secretary of state referenced her advantage, positioning herself as the best candidate to run against the Republican frontrunner.

"The last time, I checked as of last night, Donald Trump had received 3.6 million votes, which is a good number," she said. "There is only one candidate in either party who has more votes than him and that's me."

In closing statements, Clinton again expressed confidence in her ability to win the nomination, saying she doesn't "intend to get into the gutter with whoever [the Republicans] nominate."

Sanders also took a shot at Republican candidates, referencing their performances at the last GOP debate, which descended within minutes into insults and sexual innuendos.

"If elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health," said. "And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that."