To that point, things didn’t appear all that different from what the Democratic presidential hopeful usually encounters, except for the setting: a church with stacks and stacks of 24-packs of bottled water in the lobby.
“This is not a rally,” the Vermont senator told those in the pews after the music and cheering had died down. Instead, Sanders said, he was there to talk about “one of the most serious modern health crises in the history of this country.” And the tone grew more somber.
Over the next hour, Sanders mostly listened, as residents of Flint, many of them emotional and visibly angry, told him about their lead-contaminated water supply, their frustration with the government’s seeming inability to do anything about it, and the effect it is having on their children. Some said the contamination was leading to stunted learning and behavioral problems.
One of the first to speak, Danielle Green, a lifelong Flint resident, relayed that her three daughters had been poisoned by the water and that her 64-year-old mother was infected while bathing following her triple bypass heart surgery.
Flint is an impoverished, majority-African-American city. Most, though certainly not all, in the pews on Thursday were white.
Sanders was full of questions.
He relayed that he pays $70 a month for his water in Burlington, Vt.. How much are they paying?
Audience members yelled out $150, $170, $200.
“I hadn’t realized the cost of poisoned water is quite as expensive as it is here,” Sanders said.
Can you drink it?
“No!!!!” people yelled back.
Can you shower?
“You roll the dice and you hope you don’t get poisoned,” one audience member shouted.
Before leaving Woodside Church, Sanders tried to broaden the implications of one city with crumbling infrastructure, where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water.
“As a nation, we have got to get our priorities right,” he told his audience. “This is the richest country in the history of the world.”
He touted his plan to spend $1 trillion on a federal jobs program focused on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.
Hillary Clinton has also sought to put a spotlight on Flint, squeezing in a visit to the city in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, which she lost to Sanders.
Michigan holds its Democratic primary on March 8.