By Kathleen Gray and Katrease Stafford
Solving the problems of contaminated water in Flint has to remain a local, state and national priority for the foreseeable future, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told city residents gathered in a Baptist church Sunday afternoon.
"Clean water is not optional, my friends. It's not a luxury," she said. "This is not merely unacceptable or wrong. What happened in Flint is immoral. Children in Flint are just as precious as children in any part of America."
Clinton said she's been meeting with Michigan's congressional delegation to make sure that the federal government kicks in at least $200 million to fix the city's lead-damaged infrastructure. The measure stalled in the U.S. Senate last week as Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters blocked passage of an energy bill because it didn't include funding for Flint.
Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, left the campaign trail in New Hampshire two days before the pivotal primary election to highlight the Flint water crisis yet again, framing the issue as one of failure, especially by Republican leadership in Lansing.
"We don't know how many children have been affected by lead poisoning," she said. "We know that even a single child suffering from lead poisoning due to the state's neglect is one child too many. We need action now."
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a smaller meeting with Clinton, after her remarks at the church, that Clinton is the only candidate who has reached out to the city of Flint and the only one who has been talking about the situation at the national level. She also said that the state didn't start moving aggressively on the issue until Clinton spoke up.
"We want you back home. We want you back in the White House," Weaver said.
Gov. Rick Snyder's office, however, started calling for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies on Jan. 11, three days before Clinton publicly said in an MSNBC interview that the federal government should get more involved in the Flint water crisis.
Clinton has been talking about the Flint water issue for weeks, calling on both the state and federal government to make the situation right. She even suggested Sunday that Flint residents be given the opportunity to do the work to replace the city's pipes or that workers with the federally funded AmeriCorps program could come in and help try to solve the problem.
"For nearly two years, Flint's water was poisoned, for nearly two years, mothers and fathers were voicing concerns about the smells and the colors of the water ... the rashes of those who were bathing in it. And for nearly two years, you were told the water was safe," she said.
She spoke about being a new grandmother and how she would feel if the situation were happening to her family.
"For me, this is a personal commitment. I will stand with you every step of the way. I will not for one minute forget about you. I will do everything I can to help you get back up, get your strength and resilience flowing through this community again," she said. "Do not grow weary doing good. The road is long and I know there will be a lot of bumps along the way. But this is the most important work we're ever called to do."
Clinton's focus also has resulted in her calling for one of the Democratic presidential debates to be held in Flint before Michigan's primary election on March 8. The Democratic National Committee agreed, announcing recently that CNN will broadcast a debate in Flint on March 6.
Meanwhile, while Pastor Kenneth Stewart said that in nine months "the United States of America is going to give birth to a president ... and I hope it's a girl" -- and the enthusiastic congregation rose in agreement -- not everyone in Flint was a Clinton fan. A few yard signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump were seen on Carpenter Street leading up to the church.
And a tractor-trailer was parked about a half mile from the church with a hand-painted message, complete with a drawing of Trump, that read: "Vote Donald Trump for president. Make America Great Again."
The Michigan Republican Party said Clinton was exploiting the crisis in Flint for political gain.
"Families and residents in Flint deserve better than being used as political pawns by a presidential candidate," Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement. "This visit is not an act of benevolence; it is a calculated campaign tactic -- an attempt to grab headlines by a struggling campaign."
The majority of the crowd in Flint, however, were supporters of Clinton. Detroit residents Jan Lossing and Lottie Jones Hood said Clinton's speech resonated with them.
"I felt empowered," Lossing said. "I felt uplifted. I think she really touched on what matters strongly. I feel as though she's really offering hope."
Flint resident Ida Glasperel said every time Clinton mentioned the children affected by the crisis, a wave of emotion overcame her as she thought about her 12 grandchildren.
"I'm so concerned about them and if it'll affect them," she said. "I almost broke down in tears."
Cheryl Broome, who lives in nearby Mt. Morris, said while she's appreciative Clinton made a stop in Flint, she's saddened by what she believes is a lack of quicker action from local government officials in the city.
"It's sad that it took the government all the way from the top to see what's happening," Broome said. "My baby, my son, he lives in Flint. He has to go to the fire stations every day to get water. I pray that they get the individuals who are accountable for this."
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press