FLINT, Mich. — The water has tormented Jeremy Benton for five years.

It flooded his mind with fear for the health of his young children. It lashed his mother’s skin in her dying days. And for a time, it forced him to flee Flint, the once-prosperous mid-Michigan city that has become a byword in the United States for urban decay, social injustice and politicians’ gross negligence toward the public they are supposed to serve.

Then, last week, a team of yellow-vested workers appeared and dug up the pipes that had been funneling poison into Benton’s tidy gray clapboard home. The new pipes are supposed to make his water safe. But Benton isn’t planning to drink a drop of it.

“I wouldn’t even give that water to my dogs,” the 30-year-old said.

Benton’s mistrust is well-earned. And as an increasing number of Democratic candidates for president are learning, mistrust is pervasive here.

How the Flint water crisis set back thousands of students

With the Democrats preparing to debate this week just an hour down the interstate, in Detroit, the trickle of candidate visits to Flint has become a wave. On Wednesday alone, three of them were in town.

Others have made the city a central element of their pitches to improve the nation’s infrastructure, revitalize depressed urban centers or restore the faith in government that was lost — not only here but in communities nationwide — when officials repeatedly insisted there was no problem with Flint’s dangerous water.

But even as the candidates champion Flint’s cause, residents of this reliably Democratic city have been reluctant to return the embrace. In more than a dozen interviews with Flint residents, few displayed enthusiasm for any of the candidates. And nearly all expressed apprehension that the city will just be a convenient campaign prop, with little action to match the lofty promises.

“Unless you’re willing to come knock on my door and drink water from my faucet,” said Benton, a community organizer who left for Alabama at the height of the crisis but has since returned, “I’m not too concerned with what you have to say.”

Several doors down on Atherton Road — a parade of nearly identical homes built long ago by General Motors in the shadow of the company’s once-sprawling, now vastly reduced assembly plant — 64-year-old Linda Newell had a similarly jaundiced view.

“After what happened here, you can’t trust any of them,” said Newell, a former GM inspector who flies the Stars and Stripes from a front stoop also bedecked with iron-barred windows.

'Trust problem'

What happened here was one of the great failures of modern American governance. In a city racked by extraordinary debt and operating under state control, authorities sought to save money by switching the water supply in April 2014 from reliance on Detroit’s network to a new system originating in the murky currents of the Flint River.

From the archives: In Flint, Mich., there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency was declared

But routine corrosion-control measures were skipped, causing lead and other toxins to leach into the supplies. Despite a growing outcry from residents — and mounting evidence from scientific studies — authorities repeatedly denied the problem.

“Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” a state official breezily asserted after Virginia Tech scientists found lead levels in the city’s water that were nearly three times higher than the classification for hazardous waste.

By the time the mayor declared a state of emergency in December 2015, the water had been linked to a sharp increase in lead contamination among children — a condition that can lead to lifelong health problems — as well as an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that sickened dozens and left 12 people dead.

To many residents, Flint had been betrayed by officials because of who lives here.

“They said, ‘Well, it’s poor, and it’s black,’ ” said the Rev. Allen Overton, who leads a predominantly African American congregation on the city’s long-
neglected north side. “If this had been an affluent white community, it would not have happened.”

Overton was among a group of community leaders and advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Natural Resources Defense Council, that successfully sued in 2017 to force Michigan to pay for the replacement of thousands of lead service lines. The work is due to be completed by the end of the year, and once it is, authorities say, the approximately 100,000 residents of Flint will be able to safely drink their water again.

But few appear to believe the claim. The supply closet at Overton’s Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church is still stocked with pallets of bottled water. Parishioners, even those who have already had their lines replaced, stop by regularly to pick up enough to meet their daily needs.

“Everything the government told them has proven to be untrue,” Overton said. “So you can’t blame the people for having a trust problem.”

The lack of trust extends to the Democratic presidential field. Overton said President Trump has few fans in Flint. He is hoping that up to 90 percent of his congregation will turn up at the polls to help vote Trump out of the White House.

But so far, none of the Democratic aspirants have convinced him that they “have Flint in their hearts, not just on their minds.”

Many of the candidates are trying to change that perception.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro visited the city this summer. On Wednesday, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke spent more than two hours at a Flint town hall, then drove to a local family’s home for a spaghetti dinner. O’Rourke and his wife, Amy O’Rourke, brought noodles, ingredients for the sauce and two large jugs of purified water.

“We’re understanding what it’s like to make a meal when you can’t use the water that comes from the tap,” O’Rourke said on his campaign live stream as he wielded the jugs in his hosts’ kitchen.

Before leaving for dinner, O’Rourke told reporters that he would bring water quality “to the forefront as a national priority. It’s literally a life-or-death issue, as we’ve learned from what’s come out here in Flint.”

But the issue was barely mentioned at the town hall, with O’Rourke focusing instead on immigration, education and health care. Local activists — who afterward handed the candidate a T-shirt printed with the words “5 years and counting/Flint is still broken” — said many, if not most, of the 200 attendees were from outside the city.

Two other candidates — Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — also were in Flint on Wednesday. Booker used his appearance to call for “a national water policy that’s far more aggressive in dealing with the pollutants and chemicals and toxins that are in American water.”

Klobuchar’s visit was not open to the media — a reflection, perhaps, of the delicate balance that candidates must strike between paying attention to Flint while not being seen as trying to exploit it.

Beyond photo ops

To some candidates, said Flint-based state Sen. Jim Ananich, “it’s a box that you have to check. They say, ‘Oh, I’ve done this.’ We want to make sure we’re more than that.”

Although he’s a Democrat, Ananich has steered clear of the candidates’ visits to his hometown. So, he said, have his constituents, who are too “focused on getting to the end of the week” to tune in to a presidential contest that still has many months to go.

Rep. Daniel Kildee (D), who represents Flint in Congress, said he advises candidates considering a visit to “have an agenda. Be specific.”

“We don’t want to simply be a photo op or a proof point of what happens when a community gets left behind,” he said.

Kildee recently partnered with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — among the presidential candidates who has not yet campaigned in Flint — to sponsor legislation that would invest $250 billion in upgrades to the nation’s water infrastructure. The legislation, Kildee said, is intended to head off the next crisis amid growing indications that other communities’ systems may also be at risk.

“What Flint really did, sadly, was to rip the cover off the assumptions that people make about clean drinking water,” he said. “You can’t take this stuff for granted.”

In Flint, at least, no one does.

How could you, when getting clean water means a four-hour round-trip drive to draw it from a well, as it does for Terry Zinn? The 56-year-old retired floorer has been making weekly runs since the crisis began and plans to continue, even though his lead lines were replaced last week.

As his freckle-faced grandson pedaled his bike in circles on a hot summer’s day — one better suited for playing in the garden hose — Zinn scoffed at the idea that Democratic presidential candidates, or anyone else, can offer solutions to help Flint.

“The damage,” he said, “has already been done.”