Flint Sees the National Political Spotlight Two Years After Its Water Was Poisoned

Ahead of the Michigan primary on Tuesday, candidates from both parties are descending on Flint, a city in the midst of a water crisis that isn't used to political attention.
March 7, 2016, 6:50pm
Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

A woman sat in a pew and drank from a bottle of water as the small congregation at Damascus Holy Life Baptist Church in Flint, Michigan, sang along to hymns on Sunday morning. A problem with the heating forced members to stay bundled up with jackets inside the prayer hall on Flint's north side, where several inches of snow stuck to the ground even in March. As church attendants handed out envelopes for donations, they also passed out water to those who wanted it.

Wearing a white robe with red accents, Pastor Ira G. Edwards Sr. presided over the congregation, which included his marine veteran son, a niece he helped to raise, and residents from the neighborhood. Edwards spoke of faith and God's plan, as his wife backed him up on the piano and another son helped out with the drums, just a few hours before Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to town for a nationally televised debate in their city.

Despite the cold temperatures indoors, Edwards used the incident as a metaphor for the devil trying to get in the way of good things. As he lead a final prayer with congregants, the pastor closed with discussion of the ongoing water crisis that has consumed the city and left 100,000 people at risk for lead poisoning.

Specifically, Edwards talked about the resiliency of the city and the attention it would get over the next few days, as Clinton and Sanders debated just before Michigan's Democratic and Republican presidential primaries on Tuesday.

"This city was going down, and the people in charge wasn't caring," he said. "As Flint enters the spotlight tonight, we hope they show there's hope for the city and that Flint is on the rise."

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

It has been nearly two years since the city's switch from Detroit's water system to the Flint River sparked a series of health concerns, six months since a local pediatrician uncovered high lead levels in children's blood, forcing state officials to admit there was a problem, and two months since a national state of emergency was declared. Residents have since been told not to drink, bathe in, cook with, wash their hands in or brush their teeth using the water. Instead they rely on the cases of bottled water they can pick up from National Guard stations and local churches around the city.

Now, just six weeks after Clinton became the first candidate to reference Flint's plight in a debate, both she and Sanders have opened primary organizing offices in the city, the birthplace of General Motors, while making the water crisis a central campaign issue. As national networks descended on Flint for liveshots and debate coverage in the last week, public response has been varied to the unusual campaign activity in the city, which includes phone banking, water deliveries, and closed-door meetings with residents.

For most in the majority black city, the national focus on the crisis has been welcomed, albeit cautiously, at a time when they feel local and state officials ignored their initial concerns about the water.

"It really it brings the light to the situation from a national standpoint," Edwards said after church on Sunday. "I would like to say, which I know would never happen, Hillary or Sanders [should] be the president and the other [should] be the vice president."

As Edwards explained, even once the lead levels are corrected in the water, the city of Flint will still need help. And he knows particularly well what it feels like when Flint isn't in the spotlight. Edwards was on the forefront of community action in response to the Flint water crisis as a member of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, a local group of religious leaders who joined with mothers and local activists in vocalizing their concerns about the quality of Flint's water — which were largely ignored by state officials.

Related: Flint's Water Crisis Will Take Center Stage at Both Democratic and Republican Debates in Michigan

The controversy began in 2013 when the the city of Flint opted to leave the Detroit water system after fifty years to join a new regional water system known as the Karegnondi Water Authority that was set to be completed by 2017. After failing to reach an agreement with Detroit to stay on their existing water supply until the new authority was up and running, the city's state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley made the final decision to stop negotiations with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and decided to start drawing water from the Flint River instead.

Following the switch in April 2014, residents almost immediately started complaining about changes to the water like strange colors and smells, along with health effects like rashes and hair loss. By August of that year the city had to issue boil water notices to residents as a result of E. Coli contamination. Testing later uncovered increased levels of Trihalomethanes — a byproduct of chlorine that can cause cancer after long-term exposure.

By January 2015, cries from Flint residents grew louder, city meetings were filled with concerned parents and community groups as they attempted to confront officials. Publicly, state officials maintained the water was safe, until September when Flint's Hurley Medical Center put out research showing the high blood-lead levels in the city's children, forcing the government to admit there was a lead contamination problem in the city's water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), it was later revealed, failed to require Flint to use anti-corrosive agents to prevent the water from leaching lead from the pipes as it flowed into people's homes.

One year later, as high lead levels continue to be recorded and residents are still being told to drink filtered or bottled water, Clinton began elevating the crisis and railing against the state government's role during her speeches. The former secretary of state sent advisers to the city in January and then made a trip there herself last month, where she met with the new Mayor Karen Weaver and residents. Her campaign, as she pointed out Sunday night, initially requested that the Democrats hold a debate in Flint.

"We've had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African-American has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water," Clinton said during a primary debate in January, adding that every American should be outraged. "If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would've been action."

Around the same time, Sanders began calling for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign, something state residents have also demanded as many see the leader at fault for oversight within the MDEQ, financial management, and even his own office directly. Clinton joined Sanders in his call for Snyder to resign, or for residents to recall him as governor, during Sunday night's debate.

Related: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's Aides Were Concerned About Flint's Water in 2014

Sanders traveled to Flint at the end of February where he was hailed for facilitating a town hall meeting with residents.

"It is so painful, so horrific that is almost impossible to discuss. But that's what we're going to do today," Sanders said at the beginning of the meeting, which largely consisted of him asking residents questions.

At a rally in Dearborn, Michigan after the meeting, Sanders commented: "The bottom line is, when you left that meeting, you thought, 'What country am I living in? Is this the United States of America?"

Boosting operations in Flint almost in tandem, the campaigns both opened offices here in early February. The windows of Sanders downtown office are plastered with posters, while the campaign has engaged in phone banking and handing out water to residents.

But Clinton seems to have largely won over the hearts and minds of average Flint residents, particularly older ones, who feel that she acted first and has spent more time on the issue than any of the other candidates. As a majority-black city, Flint is part of a larger swing of African-American voters toward Clinton's campaign. She has won more than 80 percent of the vote from black residents in several southern states that have voted already.

As Clinton and Sanders readied for the CNN-hosted debate at Flint's Whiting auditorium ahead of Sunday's debate, a host of activists and residents gathered for a water-related event hosted by local groups Democracy Defense League and The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan just a few blocks away. In the hallway of the Woodside Church, local resident and community activist Robert Taylor, 54, chatted with his friend Shayne Hodges, a 38-year-old who has been volunteering handing out water filters and providing information to the public at city hall, about their shared support for Clinton. Both said they felt she was the first candidate to embrace the crisis and that she would stick with the city after the campaign.

"Hillary I know she's been involved with the mayor here…. Hillary has been here working," Hodges explained, while acknowledging that both Clinton and Sanders had made stops in Flint on the campaign trail.

Agreeing with Hodges, Taylor added: "Hillary was one of the first to recognize the fact that Flint has a problem and this problem would have been fixed had it been in Bloomfield Hills, Farmington, or one of the other suburbs in Detroit… it would have been fixed yesterday and she's absolutely right."

Clinton's cadre of volunteers work shifts for water distribution at the American Red Cross without any political canvassing materials. On Saturday morning, a group of about 10 volunteers, most of whom were middle-aged women from the greater Flint area, filed onto a city bus to drop off cases of water to people who can't leave their homes. One of the volunteers Sharon Hurd, a grandmother who has lived in Flint for 40 years, has taken the opportunity to hand out water with several organizations. But her support for Clinton brought her out that day, in spite of the snowy weather.

"I'm a grandmother...I'm really, really passionate about it because of the lead in the water because of how it's affected the kids," Hurd said.

Hurd and others on the bus swapped stories and concerns about the water and how the situation is being handled, while those from outside of Flint watched through the windows as the vehicle meandered past abandoned and burned-out buildings.

"[Seeing people here] that are volunteering from all over, it's real awesome, because it shows how people care," Hurd said.

Related: The Michigan Officials Responsible for Flint's Water Crisis Could Face Manslaughter Charges

The volunteers weren't chatting with residents about the campaign, but amongst themselves, conversations on the bus often shifted to the recent Republican debate and why they favored Clinton over the others.

One of the volunteers who had travelled from another part of the state was 18-year-old high school senior Max Bone from Rochester, Michigan. A Clinton supporter, Bone made the hour-long drive that morning excited about the opportunity to be able to help in Flint and with the campaign.

Over the last several months, the teenager has been bothered by the fact that his classmates, who come from the very Detroit suburbs Clinton referenced in the January debate, didn't seem to take the situation in Flint seriously. He said he's heard many people claim the crisis is overblown, while others appear not to know much about the situation at all. While Bone had researched what was happening in Flint, he said it wasn't until his school had a basketball game there that it really sunk in when he and his teammates realized they couldn't even wash their hands.

"It made me feel in shock… I did not feel like this was Michigan in the United States of America," Bone said. "It caused [my teammates] to understand, 'okay, this is real, 30 minutes from my house people cannot wash their own hands with their tap water.'"

As both the Republican and Democratic candidates made their way through Michigan over the last week, Mayor Weaver capitalized on the media presence to shine a light on Flint's needs. On Friday, she held a public ceremony to remove the first lead service line from a city home, kicking off a removal program she has spearheaded. With press from all over the country in attendance, Weaver noted that current funding would only allow for 30 pipes to be removed, highlighting the additional $55 million needed from the state.

"This is a project that will help the entire city," Weaver said. "It will help the whole city — everyone that lives in Flint, and even those who live outside of Flint that got Flint water. All deserve clean, quality water, so that is what we're working on."

"I'm so glad we're getting the attention that we're getting because that's going to help us keep the pressure on, and help for accountability to be there," she added later.

Related: Flint Residents Paid the Highest Rates in the US for Their Lead-Contaminated Water

By Sunday, Union Labor Life Insurance Co. had made a deal with the city to offer $25 million in low cost loans that will help Weaver and the city continue removing pipes under the program.

Hours before the debate on Sunday, Weaver met with Chelsea Clinton to announce a job creation program to employ youth in Flint to help with water distribution and other assistance needs as the city continues to recover. With a gift from investor J.B. Pritzker to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the program will aim to help the more than 10,000 young people between the ages of 16-25 who are either out of school or unemployed.

As much as Clinton's embrace of the Flint water crisis has earned her unwavering support among some sections of the community, there is plenty of skepticism to go around regarding her and the candidates' motives. From average residents to Sanders supporters, and even to those who favor Clinton herself, several residents expressed concern that both political and public attention will die down after the primaries.

Chris Del Morone, a 60-year-old General Motors retiree and Sanders supporter, took a minute to express his reservations about Clinton while picking up a case of water after the community event at Woodside Church on Sunday. He said he viewed her use of the water crisis as opportunistic, and hopes that whichever candidate wins will continue to be attentive to the city before and after the Democratic election.

"She came to Flint over the water issue and it's a terrible issue, it's a terrible crisis," he said. "But my question to her would be where were you at when young men and young children were being murdered in our streets and Flint was the murder capital of the country?"

For the voters Clinton has won over, like Taylor and Hodges, they believe Sanders is the one who has not been as active in the city, only focusing on Flint after his rival made it a major issue for her campaign. Taylor said he hadn't heard very much about what Sanders has done in Flint. "I don't know much about Bernie," Taylor remarked.

"Bernie hasn't done much here except gather campaign support, he hasn't done anything for Flint," Hodges argued. "Hillary came here and actually started some jobs, handing out water to people, Bernie said the governor should resign and that he takes it seriously, but that's it."

Sanders addressed the sense that he came late to Flint during Sunday night's debate, telling the audience that he had met "very quietly in Detroit with parents and others who were impacted by this disaster" early-on.

"And the second thing I did is hold a town meeting, which was as nonpolitical as I could make it for hundreds of people to tell me and the world through the media exactly what was happening here in Flint," Sanders said. "I think the fear and the legitimate fear of the people of Flint is that a certain point the TV cameras and CNN will disappear."

Taylor and Hodges have the same fear. As the pair discussed the spectacle that has developed around Flint as a result of the political campaign, Taylor expressed concern that the debate and the primaries could be one of the city's last chances to get a national audience for the water crisis. If Flint doesn't manage to seize this opportunity to improve the city, they might not get another one, he explained.

"This is our chance to get Flint back on the path and time for everyone to seize the moment," Taylor said. "This is our time to rebuild Flint and unfortunately due to the crisis situation with the water this is a time for Flint to shine and rebuild the city back together."

"It's lives at stake here with the water being poisoned and some of the politicians don't really take that serious enough for me," he added.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley, not Flint officials, made the final decision to stop negotiations with Detroit's water authority and signed off on the switch to water from the Flint River.