Correction: This story has been updated. The original version stated that officials decided not to add an anti-corrosive agent to Flint’s water supply in order to save money. Officials disagree about why the agent was not added, but according the office of Gov. Rick Snyder, cost-cutting was not the reason. The original version also stated incorrectly that state efforts to help Flint have diminished since the start of the crisis.
FLINT, Mich. — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made a quick detour Sunday afternoon from the campaign trail in New Hampshire to express her outrage directly to the residents of this struggling post-industrial city over the scandal that poisoned their municipal water supply.
“I want you to know that this has to be a national priority not just for today or tomorrow,” Clinton said from the pulpit of the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church. “What happened in Flint is immoral. The children of Flint are just as precious as children anywhere else in America.”
Clinton has repeatedly described the water crisis in Flint, where a majority of residents are African American, as an example of the nation’s struggle with economic and racial inequality. She did so again Sunday morning at a Dunkin Donuts in Manchester, N.H., where, with just two days to go before that state’s presidential primary, she stopped to say hello to voters before flying west to Michigan.
Clinton’s trip comes at a critical time in her campaign — after barely eking out a victory in Iowa and when her poll numbers are dramatically behind Bernie Sanders’s in New Hampshire.
Her campaign has pointed to her outreach in Flint as an example of her problem-solving approach to leadership. She takes credit for goading the Republican governor to accept federal help, and she cast her trip Sunday as a chance to explore what else she might do.
The trip could reinforce her support among African Americans, already far stronger than that of Sanders, a senator from Vermont. African Americans begin voting in large numbers in several Southern states later this month and in early March, and the timing of Clinton’s trip is a signal that she is looking past her probable loss in New Hampshire.
Clinton spoke for only about 15 minutes Sunday. She received an exuberant embrace from the church’s mostly black congregation, and her pitch was serious and even subdued compared with the boisterous cadences of the pastor who introduced her.
“Clean water is not a luxury, my friends,” she said. “If what happened in Flint had happened in Grosse Pointe or West Bloomfield Hills, it would have been fixed yesterday.”
She continued: “I will fight for you in Flint no matter how long it takes. This is, for me, a personal commitment. I will stand with you every step of the way. I will not for one minute forget you or forget about your children, because what happened here should never have happened anywhere.”
Clinton offered no new solutions or proposals and tossed precious little political red meat, a disappointment to some of those who wanted her to chastise Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-led state legislature, whose policies have been blamed for the fiasco.
Democrats at every level have blamed Snyder and other Republicans in part because it was a GOP-appointed emergency manager who oversaw the switch from Detroit’s water supply to the polluted Flint River water in April 2014. Over the subsequent 18 months, both the manager and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly dismissed concerns of Flint residents that the water smelled and tasted bad. A local pediatrician, some activist parents and a researcher from Virginia Tech found conclusive evidence that poison in the water had served up unsafe levels of lead to the entire community.
Last fall, the state finally reconnected the system to Detroit’s water, but by then the Flint water had so corroded lead pipes that that water, too, was poisoned. It was later discovered that, at a cost of about $100 a day, an anti-corrosive chemical could have been added to the water to prevent leaching.
Both leading Democratic presidential contenders have proclaimed solidarity with Flint. On Friday, Sanders’s staff announced the opening of a campaign office here. Clinton supporters are quick to note that she was the first to bring up the issue on the trail.
In contrast, the Republican presidential candidates were not asked about the crisis at their debate Saturday night in New Hampshire, and none have expressed much interest in the matter. Rather than attack a Republican governor from a neighboring state, Ohio’s John Kasich pivoted when asked about Flint during the Jan. 28 debate in Iowa to talk about his own handling of a water problem in Toledo.
Snyder accepted responsibility during his State of the State address last month and promised to “fix” the problem, but many here feel the state’s actions remain slow and ineffective, even after a rush to canvass more than 30,000 homes over two weeks that included deploying the National Guard to deliver faucet filters and bottled water.
The governor this week announced the firing of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality chief and called on the state legislature to approve a $30 million appropriation to pay off Flint residents’ water bills or reimburse the residents.
Among the efforts Clinton said Sunday that she supports are programs for early-childhood education and interventions known to diminish the impact of lead poisoning on developing brains. She said she favors the decision by Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, to block progress of the Senate’s sweeping energy-policy-reform bill unless hundreds of millions of dollars are added for Flint relief. She suggested that Americorps volunteers be deployed here to work with children suffering from lead-related problems and called on the state to be more transparent about its efforts to resolve the problem.
Clinton did not call for the resignation of Snyder, as rival Sanders has done. If anything, she seemed content that her presence itself had helped as national interest in the problem waned. “I’m pleased the press is here because we have to keep the spotlight bright,” said Clinton, flanked by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected in November as local anger boiled over about inaction at the city, state and federal levels.
Snyder’s office has repeatedly dismissed Clinton’s outspoken concern for Flint — and issued a statement this week accusing her of politicizing the matter.
Nonetheless, the crowd was firmly on her side, starting with the Rev. Kenneth L. Stewart, who essentially endorsed her as the 45th president when he introduced her, saying: “We’re waiting for nine months from now. That’s how long it takes to have a baby. We’re all hoping it’s a girl.”
The crowd’s enthusiasm for Clinton was emphatic. “She’s my star,” said Daniella McMillan, 45, of Flint, who is raising twin 1-year-old grandchildren and is “watching every breath closely,” even though they’ve tested negative for lead poisoning. “She cares about us and she cared about us before this happened to us.”
Store clerk Markus Brown, 60, said Clinton’s early interest in the crisis sold him. “I went with Obama in 2008 because, obviously, he’s the first black president, but I liked her then,” he said. “I’m glad to hear from her here, although it’s too bad it took this problem to get her to my town.”
Clinton closed her talk by vowing to return. It was an easy promise to make because she and Sanders are set to debate here on March 6, two days before the Wolverine State’s primary.
Anne Gearan in New Hampshire contributed to this report.