FLINT, Mich. (CN) – Taking the stage in a city overtaken by a poisoned-water crisis, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders spent much of their debate Sunday night, the Democrats’ seventh since October, focused on Flint’s troubles. Both called for a federal investigation of the disaster that has been borne most heavily by the city’s minority community.
The crisis revolves around the discovery of high levels of lead being discovered in the city’s drinking water, and the ensuing controversy over the city’s slow response in addressing it.
Nikki Wade, a Flint resident and mother of two, said she has been directly impacted by the crisis, and asked each of the candidates what they would do to restore her trust in government.
“That’s a very fair question,” Clinton said. “Your government at all levels have let you and your children and the people of Flint down.
“As president … I will work with elected officials who I trust like your mayor and your senators and members of Congress so that we can assure you that when it’s fixed, you can trust it. You deserve nothing less,” Clinton said.
Sanders told Wade that “What is going on is a disgrace beyond belief.”
“As the president of the United States … what I would do if local government does not have the resources [to address a crisis] or if the state government, for whatever reason, does not have the resources, then the federal government should step in.
“American shouldn’t be poisoned,” Sanders continued. “If local government can’t do it, then the federal government comes in, the federal government acts.”
Lee-Anne Walters , another Flint resident whose family was harmed by the fouled water, sought a promise that the city’s water system would be fixed in the candidate’s first term if one of them should be elected.
Sanders did so immediately.
“I will make a personal promise to you that the EPA and the EPA director that I appoint will make sure that every water system in the United States of America is tested, and that the people of those communities know the quality of the water that they are drinking, and that we are going to have a plan to rebuild water systems in this country that are unsafe for drinking,” Sanders said.
Clinton said that she agreed and wanted to go further. “I want us to have an absolute commitment to getting rid of lead wherever it is because it’s not only in water systems, it’s also in soil, and it’s in lead paint that is found mostly in older homes. That’s why 500,000 children today have lead lead in their bodies.”
Both the senator and the former secretary of state said Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder should either resign or be recalled for failing the people of the city. As they spoke, the governor was live tweeting his defense of his actions.
But consensus between the two Democrats quickly evaporated when the topic at hand turned from water, and moved onto subjects ranging from institutional racism to international trade and impact on rust belt community to gun control and health care coverage.
In response to a question about the U.S. auto industry’s moving much of its assembly work to Mexico, Sanders lambasted his opponent.
“Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America,” he said. “NAFTA, supported by the secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest. Permanent normal trade relations with China cost us millions of jobs.”
Sanders said he had been on the front lines of opposing these policies and more.
Clinton responded by saying, “I’ll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. He was against the auto bailout. … he voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry.”
Sanders stammered, then recovered.
“If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed the economy …”
Clinton tried to interrupt.
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” Sanders said.
“If you’re going to talk, tell the whole story, Senator Sanders,” Clinton said.
He replied, “Let me tell your story. You tell yours.”
“When billionaires on wall Street destroyed this economy, they went to Congress and they said, ‘please, we’ll be good boys, bail us out.’ You know what I said? I said, ‘let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street.’ It shouldn’t be the middle class of this country,” Sanders said.
Eventually the senator began criticizing the trade policies of the Bill Clinton administration.
Hillary Clinton responded by saying there was no point in arguing about 1990s.
“I’d much prefer to talk about the future,” she said, “because I think every election is about the future.”
Gene Kopf, the father of the Abigail Kopf, the 14 year old who survived the Kalamazoo shootings, wanted to hear about gun control and better restrictions, as the person who assaulted his daughter had no prior criminal or mental health problem.
Clinton and Sanders acknowledged there were problems with the current system. Clinton sighted what she calls the “Charleston loophole,” that allows some to avoid background checks when buying a firearm.
The loophole is named for the city where nine people were murdered in a historically black church. The accused gunman in the case is alleged to have gotten the murder weapon in three days, despite the fact his background check was incomplete.
Clinton said in addition to closing that loophole, she wants more done to hold gun manufacturers and gun sellers responsible for the damage their product do in the hands of criminals.
But Sanders rejected that position.
“If you’re talking about holding gun manufacturers liable when they sell guns in an area where they are likely to get in the hands of criminals, that’s one thing, but if they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America. I don’t agree with that.”
The scene outside the auditorium as the candidates spoke was a marked contrast to what has been witnessed at some recent Republican debates where protestors have been a loud and persistent presence. In contrast, those who shouted and brandished signs in Flint mainly did so to support a candidate rather than oppose one.
Asked in a general way about the question of race in America, Sanders noted that he was arrested in the 60’s for helping to integrate Chicago schools, and that he also marched with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clinton responded to the same question, admitting that she can never truly understand what it is like being black, but that she worked tirelessly throughout her professional life to better the condition of blacks, particularly black children.
At another point, a woman asked Sanders about the role God was relevant to him personally and as a public official.
“God is relevant,” Sanders said. “Because whether you are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religion, what it comes down to is this do onto others as you would have done onto you.”
One of the best laugh lines of the nights also went to Sanders, who said whether he or Clinton becomes president, “We are going to invest a lot of money into mental health… and if you watch the Republican debates, you know why.”
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