FLINT, Mich.—The Northbank Center at the University of Michigan-Flint, a nondescript building that houses the school's dance studio and a collection of offices, was nearly full for a Democratic debate watch party Sunday night. It was free and open to the public, and U of M students and Flint residents gathered in the Grand Ballroom, eating popcorn and talking about what had brought the party’s two presidential candidates to Flint: poison water.
"It's much bigger than just the water," Gina Luster, a 41-year-old activist and mother, told me. "The water was just the catalyst.”
In 2014, Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source from Detroit’s system to the heavily polluted, highly corrosive Flint River. The water was untreated and improperly tested, and almost immediately people began to report that what was coming out of their taps was cloudy, foul-smelling, and dangerous. For nearly two years, they were ignored by their government.
The consequences of that negligence brought Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to Flint two days before the Michigan Democratic primary. The university watch party took place just a block off the river, which winds through the city like a bloodline.
"There are people [I know] who have never voted in a primary, and they're excited to vote," Luster said. The water emergency turned Flint residents like her into experts on the consequences of austerity politics and state disinvestment, the crises created and exacerbated by crumbling infrastructure, and the generational harms associated with lead-contaminated water. Luster watched the debate to see whether the candidates knew as much as she did, and knew how to fix things the way she did.
In fact, much of what was said on stage by Clinton and Sanders came out of the mouths of Flint residents first.
“When it comes to the water itself, we are supporting a program that Mayor Weaver announced through Flint WaterWorks to pay people in Flint—not outsiders, but people here—to deliver the water while we are fixing the pipes,” Clinton said early on. It echoed something Luster had suggested to me earlier in the week about the army of unpaid Flint residents who have kept the city moving during the crisis.
Sanders, supporting what Flint residents had been demanding since they stopped being able to use their water, declared: “People are not paying a water bill for poison, and that is retroactive.” The people of Flint paid the highest water bills in the nation last year.
The debate was one of the heaviest so far on policy. Both candidates addressed many of the most pressing challenges for Flint—lead pipes, concentrated poverty, structural racism, government neglect—and how those issues plague other cities across the country.
Luster said she liked what she heard from both of the candidates, and while she had gone in supporting Clinton, she left unsure about how she would vote in the primary on Tuesday.
“I was really thinking that Hillary was going to chew him up and spit him out,” she said of Sanders’ debate performance. “I was really impressed, and it kind of made me feel a little undecided. I mean, I have on my Hillary button, and I was all for Hillary, but after watching the debate I was like, I don’t know.”
But she also expressed skepticism of the candidates’ pledges to the city—a sentiment shared by nearly 70% of the people in the room, according to a survey the university conducted during the debate.
The crisis in Flint was manmade, and had been worsening for decades, Luster said. The water was just its most recent—and most jarring—face. “Once they're in the White House, I think Flint will get lost in the sauce,” she told me with a sigh, preparing to head out into the cold night. “I hate to say it, but I really do.”