“We need to elect a governor who will give the [Flint water] crisis the attention it demands. This crisis was caused by bad leadership, followed by incompetence, corruption, and more bad leadership,” state Representative Phil Phelps (D-49), the event’s moderator, said to launch the forum at University of Michigan-Flint. “We are desperately in need of transformational change in our state leadership.”
People in attendance had the opportunity to ask former Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer, former executive director of the Detroit Health Department Abdul El-Sayed, entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs a series of questions including inquiries regarding Flint’s water crisis, public education and increasing employment opportunities for college graduates in Michigan.
“We live in a state where the governor has a forty-million-dollar rainy day fund but doesn’t think that Flint is a rainy day,” said Cobbs in his opening remarks.
Flint was the main focus of the forum, and all four candidates offered viewpoints on the city and its path to recovery.
“We can’t undo the damage that has been done by the Snyder administration, but what we can do is provide people a path so that they can be successful and so that they can take care of themselves,” Whitmer said. “This state owes the people of Flint every opportunity to be successful.”
The Flint water crisis has plagued the community since 2014. In fall 2015 health officials announced that Flint children exposed to the city’s water had elevated blood lead levels from being exposed to lead tainted water after state officials switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River
The crisis finally gained national media attention early 2016.
“We need to keep our air clean and our water pure,” Thanedar said. “We need to do everything possible to make sure that we live with a good quality of life, and that means we need to make sure that we keep our air clean and our water pure.”
The water crisis has called for a number of extended benefits including Medicaid coverage for Flint children exposed to the lead tainted water and state run water pods throughout the city providing Flint families with free bottled water.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that everybody who was affected by this water crisis has access to healthcare, up to age 21 and beyond,’ said El-Sayed, who, if victorious, would be the nation’s first Muslim governor. “I will advocate as governor for a Medicare for all program to make sure that literally, everybody in this state has access to that kind of healthcare. That’s something that I promise to Flint, and that’s something that I promise to this state.”
Candidates addressed not only the surface issues of the water crisis but also the underlying forces that are in play and the indirect outcomes. The decision to switch Flint’s water from Detroit to the Flint River happened while the city was under a state-appointed emergency manager which called for Michigan and Flint leaders to question the emergency manager process.
“It has been nothing more than a means of destroying communities that are largely minority based,” said Cobbs of the emergency managers in Michigan. “It was used as a tool to disenfranchise a group of voters who could least afford it.”
Flint has been plagued with ongoing issues including high crime, a troubled school district, and steady population decrease.
“The people of this city have been through so much, and have paid the ultimate price for a failure of government,” said Whitmer. “This is ground zero of why ensuring we elect leaders with experience matters, why we demand accountability from our leadership, why we’ve got to have a governor who cares about people more than nickels and dimes on a balance sheet…You can feel the energy here, people are engaged, and I think that’s extremely positive.”
The forum was sponsored by the Michigan People’s Campaign, Progressive Caucus of Mid-Michigan, Progressive Caucus of Flint and the University of Michigan-Flint College Democrats.
All questions were subject to review by the event organizers, who say they received a number of question submissions but narrowed it down to 35 submissions before the event.
“When I came in I wanted to hear what the four Michigan Democratic candidates had to say,” said Flint resident Jia Ireland, following the event. “I already heard from the majority of them before, but now that I am hearing more of their platforms and stances it really matters and it was good to be here to hear what they had to say so I can make an informed decision when it comes to the election.”