This article was originally published by Politico and can be found here.
Nationwide outrage over the Flint, Mich., water crisis was so intense in 2016 that Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a debate in the city and called for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over his role in allowing nearly 100,000 people to drink water poisoned with lead.
Three years later, Michigan voters are still worried about Flint’s drinking water. But it remains to be seen whether the 2020 Democratic candidates will make it a central focus.
Only 5 of the 23 Democratic contenders have visited Michigan this campaign cycle. Some have water quality and infrastructure plans on their websites or are talking about the issue on the trail, but others haven’t mentioned it at all.
President Donald Trump won the state by less than half a percentage point in 2016, so the issue will be important if Democrats want to take the state this time, said Susan Demas, a former Democratic strategist and editor-in-chief of the news website Michigan Advance.
“I’m surprised Democratic presidential candidates haven’t taken a look at it and seen [it] as a logical issue to discuss,” Demas said.
The lead outbreak started in 2014 when the Snyder administration changed the city’s water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to cut costs. The historically contaminated waterway corroded the old lead pipes throughout the city, leaching lead into the water and poisoning a community predominantly constituted of low-income people of color.
Congress approved $100 million in federal funding to repair Flint’s infrastructure in 2016, but repairs are still ongoing.
And voters throughout the state are concerned their infrastructure could fail. They rank water quality the No. 2 issue, right behind school funding, according to a 2018 survey conducted by For Our Future, a progressive grassroots organization. It was pivotal in the 2018 gubernatorial race and midterms, in which Democrats who pushed for aggressive water safety plans ousted Republicans.
According to Demas, Michigan voters want to see proposals for how the federal government, especially the Environmental Protection Agency, can help by monitoring water quality and children’s exposure to lead and other contaminants.
Some of the 2020 candidates have been trying to do that.
The most detailed plans come from Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Jay Inslee, Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke. Their campaign websites outline step-by-step actions and funding to improve infrastructure nationwide. Of those, all except Biden have mentioned Flint and their plans for the city during interviews or town halls.
Others have mentioned Flint in passing. Sanders pointed to Flint as an example when he discussed contaminated water supplies during an appearance in Denmark, S.C. Sen. Kamala Harris of California sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Both she and Sanders sent commemorative tweets on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Flint water crisis, as did many candidates.
“Flint demonstrated [to] a lot of people the extreme consequences of leaving a community behind,” Demas said.