FLINT (Michigan) • As Michigan heads for primary elections today, the focus is on Flint, a city in the midst of a public health emergency over lead-tainted water, and a symbol of a middle class that rose to prosperity with the auto industry, but where 42 per cent of the majority African-American population now lives below the poverty line.
Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were in a debate in the city on Sunday, the first since the South Carolina primary when Mrs Clinton began to open up a commanding lead over her rival.
The debate was held in Flint to highlight the city's water contamination crisis, and both candidates expressed outrage at its plight.
The crisis in Flint, a predominantly black city of 100,000, was triggered when an emergency city manager installed by Republican state governor Rick Snyder switched the city's water supply to the nearby Flint River from Lake Michigan to save money. The change corroded Flint's ageing pipes and released lead and other toxins into the water supply, exposing thousands of residents to high lead levels that have sparked serious health problems.
The rivals found common cause in their criticism of Mr Snyder on Sunday, condemning his cost-cutting measures and calling for him to resign. Both agreed Flint's neglected water distribution network needed an overhaul, and called for action from the federal government and accountability overall. Senator Sanders also embraced Mrs Clinton's call to have the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention evaluate the health of all in the city.
Earlier, however, the two exchanged jabs over trade, with Mr Sanders accusing Mrs Clinton of backing "disastrous" trade policies that took manufacturing jobs out of cities like Flint and Detroit and moved them overseas. But she said his opposition to the 2009 auto bailout, a crucial issue in a state home to the US auto industry, would have cost millions of jobs.
She also sought to protect her edge with African-Americans. Amid Mr Sanders' criticisms over the policies of her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, which disproportionately harmed African-Americans, she tried to positively recast her husband's agenda: "If we're going to talk about the 1990s, let's talk about 23 million new jobs - incomes went up for everybody, median African-American income went up 33 per cent at the end of the 90s, and we lifted more people out of poverty than at any other time in recent history."
Both candidates also said they could not wait to face billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election. "I think Donald Trump's bigotry, his bullying, his bluster, are not going to wear well on the American people," Mrs Clinton said.
Mr Sanders noted many opinion polls showed him faring better against him than Mrs Clinton.
He has struggled to slow Mrs Clinton's march to the presidential nomination, but picked up good news on Sunday with a decisive victory in the party caucuses in Maine. With almost all of the precincts reporting, he won with 64.3 per cent of the vote compared to Mrs Clinton's 35.5 per cent.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE