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Beyond the talk, here's what Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are doing to actually help Flint

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, left, and Bernie Sanders, right.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are talking about the Flint water crisis a lot these days – but we wanted to know: Is any of this campaign attention actually helping the people who can’t drink their unfiltered tap water?

Here’s what the campaigns say they're doing in terms of real, practical efforts to help Flint residents.

Clinton: fundraising, campaigning, and all over the issue   

Clinton has jumped on the Flint water crisis big-time, from taking time out from the New Hampshire primary campaign (where polls predicted her second-place finish) to visit Flint, calling for an additional Democratic debate to be held in the city (which is now scheduled for March), and hitting the issue hard in national debates.

"I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what's happening in Flint, Michigan,” Clinton said during anNBC debate held in South Carolina last month. "I think every single American should be outraged. We've had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care."

After visiting the city February 7 and speaking at a local church (and making a campaignvideo out of the event, as well as winning endorsements from local pastors), Clinton’s campaign sent out an email this past weekend, asking supporters to donate to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

That email helped set a record for the non-profit: the most individual donors in one day.

“We had 1,337 donors within a 24-hour-period, that’s about triple or quadruple what’s been our high to date,” says foundation president Kathi Horton. “So we were pretty impressed with the results.”

Horton says the staff hasn’t added up the total contributions yet. Asked what she thinks about the water crisis becoming a political talking point for Democrats, and she says it’s important not to let Flint become a politically “opportunistic” campaign stop for candidates.  

"But what matters in this case is that somebody has put money where their mouth was."

“Everybody appreciates the fact that people have great empathy for the people and families in Flint, so it matters to us that this has become part of the national discourse,” Horton says. “But what matters in this case is that somebody has put money where their mouth was. It’s so easy to talk and so easy to do nothing concrete. So we’re so appreciative that [the] Hillary for America campaign came through with actually delivering some precious resources, that will make a difference for kids and their families in years to come.”

Clinton’s campaign says her family also made a personal donation to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, though the amount isn’t being publicly disclosed.  

Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign says it’s opening an office in Flint this week. And the campaign has also compiled a fact sheet about Flint-related legislation Clinton supports, including federal bills to “replace and rebuild the pipes in Flint” and “ensure the EPA notifies consumers” when lead is reaching dangerous levels in drinking water.

Sanders: “engaging the community” and “listening”

Bernie Sanders, for his part, has long agreed that what’s happening in Flint is outrageous and wrong.

His campaign opened a Flint office this month, and the Vermont senator says he visited the city Monday to speak with families affected by the crisis.

“I obviously have read the newspapers, have been somewhat involved in the issue,” he told a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 9,000 at Eastern Michigan University. “But I really did not know how ugly and how horrible and how terrible what is going on in that community.”

“You know, I’ve called for Snyder’s resignation, that’s fine. But if the local government cannot protect those children, if the state government cannot protect those children, then the federal government better get in and do the right thing.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Hughes, the Michigan campaign director for Sanders, says the campaign's Flint office has become an informal water distribution center.

"So folks come in and pick up water. That's just one of the ways we're trying to help."

“We opened up about two weeks ago, and sort of an organic effort happened where folks started to bring water in from Flint, from around the state, from around the country even as far away as Florida,” he says. “So folks come in and pick up water. That’s just one of the ways we’re trying to help. We’re obviously not there to fix the problems, because that would be impossible. But we’re just engaging with the community.”

“However, the people of Flint…don’t want celebrities visiting their town, they don’t much care for the presidential campaign happening and being highlighted in their town,” says Hughes. “And look, we would be there in Flint were it not for this tragedy. But like I said, we’re not there to solve the problem. We’re there to have a place for our volunteers to gather, and talk about ways to engage the community and come up with real solutions.”  

The political calculus: ahead of South Carolina primary, appeal to African-American voters

This kind of out-in-front activism on the Flint water crisis also appeals to voters, says Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

“African-Americans, not only in Flint but across the country, have heard a lot about this, [and] view it as a racial issue at least in part,” he says. “And so that opens it also as an opportunity for constituency outreach – one that will be a hard-fought constituency in the Democratic primary.”

“We know it’s already a fault line in the campaign. Hillary Clinton is not doing as well among white voters as minority voters. And Bernie Sanders views it as an important constituency that he needs to do better at reaching,” Grossman says. “And so that makes a difference not only in Michigan, but throughout the country, if this is an issue that’s at the top of minds for African-Americans. The same way that talking about a police shooting, for example, that might be in a particular state but has symbolic support for a national constituency, might help the candidates.”

Sanders and Clinton will debate each other ata CNN debate in Flint on March 6, just days ahead of this state’s primary. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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