Flint, Michigan: Is this a good place for Bernie Sanders to win voters?

Sen. Bernie Sanders addressed the Flint water crisis to a crowd at Eastern Michigan University on Monday, the closest he's come to the beleaguered city since the crisis became public. Does he need to do more to win Flint voters?

Jim Young/REUTERS
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gets a kiss from his wife Jane at a campaign rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan, United States, on Monday.

Has Sen. Bernie Sanders arrived on the scene too late to capture Michigan voters who are concerned about Flint?

The Michigan Democratic primary isn’t scheduled to take place until March 8, but candidates are already making the rounds. The Vermont senator visited Ypsilanti, Michigan, on Monday.

With 147 delegates at stake, Michigan is not the largest state currently in contention, but certainly not the smallest. Senator Sanders has five offices in Michigan, including one in Flint.

The only debate scheduled in Michigan before the primary in March will take place in Flint, indelibly linking both candidates’ efforts in the state to the Flint water crisis, an issue that Hillary Clinton has highlighted for over a month. Clinton herself called for the March 6 debate to be located in Flint.

Sanders called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign a month ago, but has not kept up with Clinton’s Flint efforts otherwise, a slip up that could hurt him as the primary approaches.

As he expands his campaign to March primary states, what must Sanders do to win votes in Flint?

Sanders has been criticized for his decision not to visit Flint directly. According to his campaign, however, Sanders met with a small group from Flint and heard their stories instead.

“The senator preferred to meet quietly today with seven or eight people impacted by the unbelievable, horrific situation in Flint,” said Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs, “without making a media show out of it.”

At a rally at Eastern Michigan University, Sanders told crowds that the meeting with Flint residents was one of the most difficult he had ever experienced. One mother, he said, had watched her son’s intellectual development diminish due to lead contamination in the city’s water.

His compassion from afar may not be enough to counter Clinton’s on-the-ground efforts, however.

"He's got to visit. I'm mystified as to why he hasn't visited already," says Elaine Kamarck, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard, and director of the Center of Effective Public Management at Brookings. "He's got to address the issue."

Sanders is known for his populist message, which could be appealing to voters in Michigan. Flint’s poverty rate is nearly two percent higher than that of struggling Detroit, at 42 percent.

Despite Sanders’ focus on the negative effects of economic inequality, which certainly impacted Flint, he may need to examine the whole picture to appeal to Flint’s African-American citizenry.

According to Dr. Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard, “It is not helpful to separate race and gender challenges from economic challenges.”

Some also feel that Sanders has “shirked his responsibility” in attacking the crisis as a member of a Senate committee that handles the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Kamarck, Sanders could make a stronger case for his presidency by calling for more aggressive EPA oversight in light of the Flint crisis. 

Although Sanders took a cautious approach to the Flint issue in order to avoid exploiting the situation, his rival has managed to win favor through a combination of genuine outreach and political savvy.

Significantly, Clinton has received endorsements from several prominent figures in Flint’s African-American community, a group to which Sanders cannot afford to appear callous.  

"She didn't use the 'water crisis' as a platform to further her political agenda,” said Rev. Al Harris of Flint. “I was overwhelmed by her sincere love and compassion for the people of Flint, as she pledged her full support in doing everything it takes to make our fractured community whole."

Two other black ministers from Flint announced their support for Clinton.

“Secretary Clinton is the only presidential candidate that has reached out personally,” said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver last Tuesday, “to show her support for the City of Flint as it tries to recover from this man-made disaster.”

According to Kamarck, Clinton's successful handling of the Flint crisis is partially due to timing. "Hillary made a big deal in the middle of the New Hampshire primary," Kamarck said. "She took a key day to go to Flint."

Not everybody is as pleased with Clinton’s attention to Flint, however. Critics say that Clinton will turn Flint into a “political football” in order to win votes.

Perhaps, as Dr. Ganz says, it is simply too early to tell.

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