FLINT, Mich., March 6 (UPI) — In the opening minutes of Sunday night’s Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in this Michigan city where tap water is tainted with lead, both candidates called on the state’s governor to resign.
From there, the candidates continued to spar over gun control, race relations and economic policy during their seventh debate of the presidential campaign.
In opening statements during the Flint, Mich., debate, the former secretary of state and Vermont’s senior senator agreed, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should resign or face a recall election after his administration was found to have covered up potential problems with Flint’s municipal water supply, even in the face of massive public outcry over foul odors and health problems as a result.
“I have to tell you, what I heard and what I saw literally shattered me and it was beyond belief children in Flint, Mich., in the United States of America, in the year 2016, are being poisoned. That is clearly not what this country should be about,” Sanders said in his opening statement.
Clinton spoke next, agreeing with Sanders: “Can I first say, ‘amen to that?'”
She also slammed the state government for failing to come forward with the money needed to replace pipes that were corroded by polluted water.
“It is raining lead in Flint and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required,” Clinton said.
The city’s government, which is largely under the control of state officials due to the economic problems there, switched its source of drinking water from the Great Lakes to the Flint River in an effort to save money, which caused the lead problem. It was found later that state and some federal officials knew of the potential problems and ignored it.
Democrats have torched Snyder for his handling of the issue. State officials at first insisted the water was fine, but as public outcry grew, it became clear something was wrong. Residents said thousands of children in the city have been put at risk of developmental and other health problems.
The exchange was a predictable one for the candidates, who have both derided government’s role in the crisis in Flint. Residents are still using bottled water as a result.
But the problems run deeper than what’s coming out of the tap for minorities and the poor. About four in 10 residents in Flint live below the poverty line.
The city has a majority black population and was once the heart of General Motors’ industrial operations in Michigan but the company’s factory there has closed, as have other auto-related facilities. In many respects, Flint is a prime example of the toll the decline in American manufacturing has taken on the industrial Midwest. The unemployment rate in Flint is 9.7 percent, nearly double the national average.
Clinton was questioned by CNN’s moderators, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, about her support in the 1990s for an overhaul of criminal justice system. Clinton disavowed portions of the sweeping law that have led many minorities to be imprisoned.
“There were some aspects of it that worked well. Other aspects of it were a mistake,” Clinton said, calling for “an end to the era of mass incarceration.”
The candidates also tangled over gun control, an issue where Sanders, who is from a rural, pro-gun state, holds positions to the right of Clinton.
Clinton called for an end to legal immunity granted to gun sellers and manufacturers. Sanders disagreed, saying it would “end gun manufacturing in America” if companies were allowed to be sued if a gun they made or sold was used to injure someone.
“Giving immunity to gun makers and sellers was a terrible mistake because it removed any accountability for the makers and the sellers,” Clinton said.
“You talk about corporate greed?” Clinton said, addressing Sanders directly. “The gun manufacturers sell guns to make as much money as they can make.”
One of the more contentious moments in the debate in Michigan came when the candidates locked horns over the auto industry bailout. Clinton voted in favor of it, while Sanders, citing his opposition to the Wall Street bailouts included in the legislation, voted against it.
“He was against the auto bailout,” Clinton said. “In January of 2009, President-elect Obama asked everybody in Congress to vote for the bailout. I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that wound up saving the auto industry.”
Sanders said the bad parts of the bill were bad enough he could not vote yes, though he said he would have supported the auto bailout as a standalone piece of legislation.
“I said ‘let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street,'” Sanders said.
Clinton responded: “I believe if everybody voted the way he did, the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it.”
The debate comes at an urgent time in the campaign for Sanders, who trails Clinton considerably in the race for delegates to the party’s nominating convention in Philadelphia this summer. Sanders notched victories in two states on Saturday, but Clinton’s overwhelming victory in the day’s largest prize, Louisiana, allowed her to extend her lead in the delegate race despite losing two out of three states.
Polls have shown Clinton with a significant lead in Michigan ahead of Tuesday’s primary there.