Flint Debate: Clinton and Sanders on the Issues

by | March 7, 2016

By Kathleen Gray, Matthew Dolan and Greg Gardner

Michigan issues such as the mass shooting in Kalamazoo dominated the Democratic debate in Flint on Sunday.

The shooting last month came up when Gene Kopf, the father of 14-year-old Abigail Kopf, who was injured in the shooting, asked the candidates what they would do to make significant change.

"We should try everything that works," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, adding that the Brady Bill has been working to prevent shootings and making gun manufacturers accountable. She noted that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont opposed it.

Sanders said instant background checks should be expanded, adding: "To be honest, nobody has a magic solution to this problem; for us to tell you" that they "absolutely will not happen again is not true."

Kopf said his daughter, who was critically injured in the Kalamazoo shooting, is on the mend. "She's laughing, giggling, but has a long road to physical recovery."

Issue: The bailout of the auto industry

The auto bailout issue provided the most pointed exchange between Clinton and Sanders.

"Sen. Sanders was against the auto bailout. In January 2009, President (Barack) Obama asked everyone in Congress to vote for the bailout," Clinton said. "He voted against the money that saved the auto industry."

Sanders voted for a bill that would have stopped the plan to spend the money for a variety of bailouts, including for Wall Street and the auto industry.

"The Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed the economy, I stood up to corporate America time and time again," Sanders said.

Clinton said if everyone had voted like Sanders had, "I believe the auto industry would have collapsed and" it would have taken "4 million jobs with it."

Issue: Flint water crisis

The Flint water crisis was front and center right off the bat at the Democratic debate being held in the city.

"We've come to Flint because this is a city in crisis," said CNN moderator Anderson Cooper. "The tap water is toxic."

Sanders reiterated his call for Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over the issue, saying: "I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible and he should resign."

Clinton for the first time also called on Snyder to resign.

"The governor should resign or be recalled," she said. "The state should also be sending money immediately to help this city. I know the state has a rainy day fund, what? It is raining lead in Flint."

The state has sent $68 million to the city for services and Snyder has proposed an additional $165 million in his 2017-18 budget for the city.

Issue: Detroit's schoolchildren

Shoniqua Kemp, a Detroit mother who is part of a lawsuit against the Detroit Public Schools, asked the candidates what policies and procedures they will put in place to ensure a successful future for her daughter and other Detroit children.

"A great nation is judged not by its number of billionaires or millionaires but how it treats the most vulnerable," Sanders said. "We should be ashamed of how we treat our kids and senior citizens. The Republican leadership is fighting for tax breaks for top earners, but we can't come up with money to fix Detroit's crumbling public schools system."

Michigan's controversial emergency manager law, in which the state appoints a manager to take over financially struggling schools and cities, came in for harsh criticism from Clinton.

"I would use every legal means to try and force the governor and the state to return the schools to the people of Detroit to end emergency management," she said. "If you look at data, the situation has only gotten worse under emergency managers."

Issue: Racism

The issue of racism in America brought out the lack of experience for both Clinton and Sanders.

When asked what their racial "blind spots" were, Clinton said, "Being a white person in the United States of America, I know I've never had the experiences that so many in this audience have. I urge white people to think of what it would be like to have to have that 'conversation' with your kids."

Sanders' answer was similar: "When you're white you don't know what it's like to live in a ghetto, to be poor ... In this nation in the year 2016, we will end institutional racism and reform the criminal justice system."

Issue: Trade

Sanders has tried to link Clinton to her husband's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and her belated opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"I am very glad that Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue," Sanders said. He said it was one of the prime factors that has led to massive job losses in Michigan and the decline of Detroit.

Clinton, in turn, attacked Sanders for siding with Republicans in opposing the Export-Import Bank, which the former first lady and secretary of state said helps Michigan businesses.

"We're in a race for exports," Clinton said, saying that the U.S. must help its business compete against other industrialized nations, which help their companies grow their international trade.

Issue: The Republicans

The Democratic candidates at the debate in Flint didn't talk about the candidates on the GOP side of the aisle much.

But late in the debate, there was this from Clinton: "We have our differences and vigorous debates. But compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week."

And from Sanders: "We're going to invest a lot into mental health and when you see the Republican debates, you understand why."

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press