FLINT, Mich. — Donald Trump encountered resistance Wednesday during his first campaign trip to this majority African American city that suffered a water-contamination crisis, as a pastor who invited him to appear at her church asked him to stop politicking.
As Trump spoke in Bethel Methodist Church about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s “failed” policies, Rev. Faith Green Timmons interrupted him.
“Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done in Flint. Not to give a political speech,” she said.
Trump relented, saying, “Okay. That’s good. I’m going to go back onto Flint.”
The brief trip to Flint, a city gripped by poverty, marked Trump’s latest attempt to boost his appeal to African Americans and other minorities who don’t typically vote Republican. It also highlighted the awkwardness and the problems he has faced in his endeavor. The city’s Democratic mayor raised objections to Trump’s visit before he showed up.
Democrats have been skeptical of Trump’s recent outreach, which comes after months of showing limited interest in reaching out to black communities and repeatedly antagonizing ethnic and religious minority groups.
Before the church stop, the Republican nominee visited a water treatment plant that is not currently operational.
Inside the facility, Trump walked slowly as he was guided by plant employee JoLisa McDay, 45, who explained to Trump how the water had been contaminated. Trump stayed quiet and tight-lipped as he followed McDay along the thick concrete floors, occasionally asking questions.
The drinking-water crisis started when the city switched its water supply in 2014 to cut costs and state officials failed to add the anti-corrosive materials necessary to clean the water, leading to lead contamination. At the time, Flint was controlled by an emergency manager appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Snyder, who has faced heavy criticism, has apologized for the fiasco that struck this city of nearly 100,000 residents. The crisis caused an alarming rise in lead levels in children who live here.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (D) was not happy about the GOP nominee’s trip. She issued a statement on her Facebook page saying that neither Trump nor his staff have reached out since the crisis was declared an emergency. She said Trump did not let her know of his plans to visit this week.
“Flint is focused on fixing the problems caused by lead contamination of our drinking water, not photo ops,” said Weaver, who supports Clinton and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Democrats have made the Flint water crisis a more prominent part of their campaign than Republicans. Clinton has made two stops in Flint this year. During one, she debated her Democratic primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
At the church, Trump was introduced by longtime Ben Carson adviser Armstrong Williams and initially won applause. But some of the attendees were unhappy with the political tone of parts of his speech and called out their displeasure as he spoke.
As Trump left, an African American man shouted at the candidate, “Are you sorry that you did not rent to black and Latino tenants?” It was an apparent reference to controversy over the Trump organization’s renting practices decades ago, when it came under scrutiny in the 1970s for its practices.
Others shouted at him but it was difficult to hear his response, as the press was rushed out.
As Trump’s motorcade rolled through town between the water plant and the church, stopping traffic, onlookers snapped photos and waved. Some people showed signs of disapproval, giving a thumbs down or making an obscene hand gesture to the vehicles as they passed.
Trump aides said they expected the reception in Flint to be mixed but decided to come here to pitch voters usually averse to Republicans. Polls show Clinton leading in Michigan, even as the race has tightened in other states.
The aides added that Trump’s trip was part of a broader emphasis on outreach to minority communities, with more deeply Democratic cities being targeted for possible visits in the coming days.