Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) met in Flint on Sunday for the seventh debate of the primary season, with a strong local focus. Over the two-hour debate, candidates answered questions from Flint residents and discussed state issues such as the Flint water crisis and the deterioration of Michigan’s economy and industry. The discussion marked a stark difference to Thursday’s Republican debate in Detroit, which devoted about 10 minutes in total to questions about the state.
The debate came two days before Tuesday’s presidential primary in Michigan. Clinton, who has frequented the state since the Flint water crisis began to garner public attention, leads Sanders with 57 percent of the vote, according to the latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll. Nationally, Clinton currently leads Sanders by 9.6 percent according to an average of polls from RealClearPolitics.
Flint water crisis:
The Flint water crisis proved a significant topic throughout the debate, with Flint Journal editor Bryn Mickle, one of the moderators of the debate, questioning both candidate’s approach to addressing the crisis and their actions in the city.
Both candidates, in their answers, called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder — a new position for Clinton and a repeated one for Sanders.
Clinton answered Mickle’s question first, pushing back on his suggestion that candidates were visiting Flint merely to campaign there and citing previous experiences working to aid communities suffering from crises.
The candidate has highlighted the water crisis multiple times in the past month, including in her closing statements at the Jan. 17 Democratic debate. She has since campaigned on the issue, visiting Flint and meeting with community leaders. Her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, has also campaigned in the state separately.
“This problem is one that is particularly outrageous and painful at the same time,” Clinton said Sunday. “So, when I heard about it I immediately sent people here to find out what was going on. It was almost unbelievable. We have this problem in other places, but we don't say that it was actually caused by decisions made by public officials in positions of authority, as this one was.”
Clinton added that her commitment to Flint doesn’t end after the Michigan primaries, noting discussions she’s had with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and state residents.
“I'm going to do everything I can. And, I will be with Flint all the way through this crisis in whatever capacity I am,” Clinton said. “And, if I'm president, it will always be a priority for action from me.”
To Sanders, Mickle asked why he had not paid as much attention as Clinton had to the crisis.
The debate marks Sanders’ second public visit to Flint following a town hall meeting two weeks ago, though he has also raised awareness on the issue throughout his campaign, calling for Snyder’s resignation on Jan. 17.
In response to the question, Sanders brought up his town hall.
“(The meeting) 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. And people are going to be left struggling in order to live in a safe and healthy community.”
The crisis was also a focus before the debate: protesters outside chanted “Raise the wage, clean our water” with the goal of drawing attention to raising minimum wage laws and the Flint water crisis.
Trade agreements and protecting domestic industries — specifically the auto industry — were a recurring focus throughout the debate.
The topic was a contentious one for the candidates, as they both tried talking over each other and attacked their opponent’s records on the issue.
Clinton repeatedly pointed to Sanders’ lack of support in the Senate for a bill that approved funds for the auto industry bailout — the Troubled Asset Relief Program — along with a number of other measures, including bailing out several of the large banks. The bailout ultimately prevented two of the three major United States auto producers, Chrysler and General Motors, from declaring bankruptcy, which was projected to result in a loss of 1 million jobs in Michigan on top of the state’s 25 percent unemployment rate at the time.
Sanders responded to Clinton’s comments by calling the auto bailout the “Wall Street bailout” and saying his opposition to the package was based on the need for billionaires to pay for their own bailout instead of using taxpayer dollars.
“When billionaires on Wall Street destroyed this economy, they went to Congress and they said, ‘please, we'll be good boys, bail us out,’ ” Sanders said. “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.”
Detroit Public Schools:
Staying Michigan-centric, a question on improving the nation’s education system focused on the crumbling school system in Detroit, which is currently $3.5 billion in debt.
Detroit mother Shoniqua Kemp, who is part of a group of parents suing the school system for improved conditions, asked the question to the candidate.
“My daughter cannot wait eight more years for success to take place at your hands, at the leader's hands,” she said.
In response, Sanders said the nation should be embarrassed by the situation, focusing on the issue of inequality. He noted that the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty, saying the issue goes beyond underfunded school systems.
“A great nation is judged not by how many millionaires and billionaires it has, but by how it treats the most vulnerable amongst us, and that is the children, and that is the elderly,” Sanders said. “And, do you know what? We should be ashamed of how we treat our kids and our senior citizens.”
Clinton, in contrast, answered the question with a definitive three point plan to address the inequality happening in Detroit schools. Throughout the campaign, Clinton has received strong support from primary and secondary educators — she has been endorsed by both major teachers’ unions: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
As part of her plan, she said she would reinstate a program put in place during her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, which allowed the federal government to provide funding to improve impoverished schools. As well, she said she would remove emergency management of Detroit’s schools and set up a group within the Department of Education which would focus on improving schools like those in Detroit.
“I want to set up inside the Department of Education, for want of a better term, kind of an education SWAT team, if you will,” Clinton said. “Where we've got qualified people, teachers, principals, maybe folks who are retired, maybe folks who are active, but all of whom are willing to come and help. When Detroit gets back their schools, they should have all the help they can get to be able to get teachers in the classroom, to be able to find spaces while schools are being repaired.”
Sanders said the issues the K-12 schools in Detroit and across the country extend to higher education as well. He said when thinking about education, the United States should start by ensuring higher education is accessible for all students.
“So, starting with the top — now, I know some people think it's a radical idea, I don't,” Sanders said. “I believe that every public college and university in this country should be tuition free. So that your child, regardless of the income of your family, knows that if she studies hard, she is going to be able to go to college.”
In an impromptu press conference before the debate, Sanders expanded on his views on revamping higher education, calling for a more comprehensive approach to public education.
“In 2016, when we look at public education, it can no longer be first grade through 12th grade — free public education — that was a great idea for many, many decades, but right now in many ways a college degree is the equivalent of a high school degree was 50 years ago,” he said.
Because of student debt, he added, some people cannot get married, buy a car, a house or have children.
“We should not be punishing people for the ‘crime’ of getting a higher education,” Sanders said. “We have legislation in the works that would substantially reduce student debt in this country.”