Paul Sancya / AP

Flint water crisis makes its way into 2016 presidential campaign

Democrats to hold next debate in Michigan city devastated by tainted water; Republicans remain mostly silent

As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, continues without a clear resolution in sight, the plight of the city caught in one of the country’s highest-profile public health disasters is making its way into the 2016 presidential primary contest. While it has become a fairly prominent issue on the Democratic side, it remains a virtually untouched topic among Republican contenders.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visited Flint on Sunday, becoming the first candidate to visit the town, and she spoke to congregants at a predominantly black church, calling the crisis “immoral.”

“The children of Flint are just as precious as the children of any part of America,” she said at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church.

Underscoring the issue, the Democratic National Committee recently announced that the next debate between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would take place in Flint on March 6.

Sanders has repeatedly called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over the water debacle, and local reports indicate that his campaign has set up a presidential campaign office in the beleaguered city.

“Not only should Gov. Snyder resign immediately, the Justice Department must hold everyone accountable who knew about this crisis and did nothing,” he said in a Jan. 16 statement. “The federal government needs to take every possible measure to ensure that the people of Flint get clean drinking water as soon as possible.”

Flint, with about 100,000 residents, has seen its water contaminated with elevated levels of lead, after a state-appointed emergency manager of the city switched its source of water to save money in 2014.

Snyder on Wednesday proposed spending some $195 million on Flint and another $165 million on Michigan’s overall infrastructure needs. The governor has directed approximately $37 million for Flint, a number that falls well below what many Democrats have called for. He has rebuffed congressional calls to testify on his role in the crisis.

A bill supported by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., would call for some $765 million to help those affected by the tainted water and help the Flint deal with the public health threat.

In her speech on Sunday, Clinton urged Congress to act. “Congress needs to pass that bill immediately,” she said. “This is no time for politics as usual.”

She also spoke about the Flint crisis at the Democratic debate in South Carolina on Jan. 17, arguing that “if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit” had been drinking contaminated water, “there would have been action.”

Sanders echoed that point in a debate in New Hampshire last week. “One wonders, if this were a white suburban community, what kind of response there would have been,” he said. "Flint, Michigan, is a poor community. It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable."

No blame for Snyder from GOP

Republicans, meanwhile, have been for the most part silent on Flint, despite growing national calls to address the emergency.

When confronted by reporters, the GOP candidates have avoided answering questions about the failures of Snyder, a Republican whose endorsement could help deliver a swing state to the candidates.

“It’s just not an issue we’ve been, quite frankly, fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and that state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said last month, in response to a question on the Flint crisis.

Front-runner Donald Trump said in January, “It’s a shame what’s happening in Flint, Michigan. A thing like that shouldn’t happen.” But he declined to comment further.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich broke the GOP silence during last month’s Republican debate, when he was asked by moderators how he would have handled the crisis. While declining to assign blame to anyone, he offered a broad response about how governments and communities should work together in the face of such crises. “I don’t know all the details of what Rick Snyder has done. I know there have been people who have been fired, people who are being held accountable,” Kasich said. “But the fact is, every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that.”

Referring to a water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, he said he learned a lesson. “You’ve got to work with local communities, and you’ve got to work with the federal government,” he said. “Because you realize that people are depending on you.”

“But people have to be alert,” he added, apparently suggesting that the residents of Flint were not. “They have to be alert to problems. And when you see a problem, you must act quickly to get on top of it.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also weighed in on the crisis last month, pointing his finger at the Flint’s local elected officials, which he characterized as “one-party government control of far-left Democrats.”

The Cruz campaign sent volunteers in the middle of January to hand out bottled water in Flint — but only to women at a crisis pregnancy center, a facility run by an anti-abortion group.

Cruz’s Michigan campaign director, Wendy Lynn Day, told Detroit News reporter Chad Livengood that donating the water supported the city and shows the “pro-life values of Sen. Cruz.”

With wire services

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