The city of Flint’s state of depression predates the eastern Michigan community’s water contamination crisis, said Desiree Duell, a single mother who’s at her wit’s end about the quality of life in her hometown. In 2014, the 34-year-old artist fell ill because of lead-poisoned water in the showers she regularly used at the local YMCA. She lost some of her hair. Her cats began vomiting from drinking tap water.
“A lot of us will never trust tap water again,” Duell said in a recent phone interview. “We have PTSD from it.”
Meanwhile, Duell pulled her son, David, 10, out of class because his homeroom teachers had either quit or been reassigned repeatedly. David is now home-schooled, a taxing endeavor for his mother, who said she is barely scraping by on art commissions and the occasional contract job.
Flint's water crisis is the last straw for Duell and many other Flint residents, who are now looking to candidates in the 2016 presidential election for more than donated bottled water and star-studded fundraisers. They say there are underlying statewide problems of public service mismanagement and disenfranchisement that federal leadership must address. As Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are taking turns pitching their solutions to Michigan voters ahead of Tuesday’s primaries, some Flint residents say they’ve lost trust that government can effectively fix their issues, even if candidates hit all of the right notes on the water crisis, ailing school systems and a depressed job market.
“We need jobs, most of all,” Duell said. “I don’t think I could sell my house right now, because my pipes are falling apart. That’s a very stressful way to live, especially as a single parent.”
Residents’ requests for federal intervention in Flint run the gamut, from funding to replace the city’s damaged pipes to free healthcare for children and adults affected by the water crisis. More broadly, Michigan residents also have said they want the state to bail out school systems that are in turmoil from mismanagement, a lack of resources and disrepair.
Debra Hayes is executive director of My Brother’s Keeper, a shelter in Flint for about 45 homeless men where residents and staff cannot use the faucets to brush their teeth or make meals because of the water crisis. Presidential candidates would impress Hayes if they said how they’d hold Republican Gov. Rick Snyder accountable for the problems in Flint and elsewhere in the state.
“Press charges against the governor for the harms that he has caused to the citizens of Flint, Michigan,” she said in a phone interview. “The most disturbing thing is that the governor is still in office. If what happened to Flint had happened in another country, [the U.S.] would have stepped in and tried to save them.”
Michigan has the distinction of being home to Detroit, the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy when it accumulated $7 billion in debt. Under Snyder, who assumed office in 2011, Detroit was taken over by an emergency manager who was later authorized through state legislation to take over the financial management of other cities, most of them with majority African-American, poor and working-class populations.
The water crisis in Flint had its genesis in 2014, when an emergency manager sought to save money on the city's water supply infrastructure. Flint officials stopped sourcing water from a Detroit supplier that took proper anti-contamination measures. Instead, it drew from the highly contaminated Flint River without necessary chemicals to prevent corrosion, resulting in dangerous levels of lead, E.coli and other contaminants in darkly colored and odiferous water.
It would take a year before the plight of the city would make international headlines. In January, the Flint water crisis became a talking point among Democratic presidential candidates. Water bottle donations from around the world surged. A group of black celebrities, including “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and “Creed” director Ryan Coogler, held a #JusticeForFlint fundraiser last weekend instead of attending the 88th annual Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
Flint has an estimated population of nearly 100,000, the U.S. Census Bureau shows. In 2014, 54 percent of city residents were black, 39 percent were white and nearly 4 percent were Latino. The estimated median income was $24,679, and the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent last year. Nearly 41 percent of residents lived at or below the poverty line.
In 2011, Duell returned to her hometown after college to work as an artist and community activist and found the city had changed dramatically. Local officials no longer had control over the city’s financial management, which led to the decision that gave Flint dangerous water.
Duell talked about her city’s plight with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, when the Democratic presidential candidate made a campaign stop in Flint. “I was one of the mothers that met with Hillary privately,” Duell said. “She seemed very eager to get things moving forward.”
Clinton rival U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont held an event at Duell’s place of worship, Woodside Church in Flint. She’s looking forward to the Democratic presidential debate between the two candidates Sunday night when Flint’s problems, along with education and economic opportunity in Michigan, are expected to dominate the discussion. A coalition of environmental and racial justice groups this week called for the Democratic National Committee to make “environmental racism” — the intersection of race, socioeconomics and environmental issues — a main focus of the debate.
These topics were briefly mentioned during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate hosted in Detroit by Fox News. When asked about the Flint water crisis, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he and his three opponents agreed what happened there was “a terrible thing.” He also described it as “systemic breakdown at every level of government” although he hedged at placing the blame squarely on Michigan’s Republican governor.
“And by the way, the politicizing of it I think is unfair, because I don’t think that someone woke up one morning and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to poison the water system to hurt someone,’ ” Rubio said.
Asked about the failing school system in Detroit, Ohio Gov. John Kasich ran through a list of solutions he said improved his state’s public education system, including school choice, vouchers and charter schools. But he said the solution wouldn’t come from government alone.
“Put the politics aside, and everyone in this room can play a role in lifting their schools and lifting the students who are in those schools, because too much politics gets in the middle of it, and where we focus as adults, and put children first, we see tremendous results,” Kasich said.
Dawn Wilson Clark, a Detroit resident with connections to Flint, intends to vote in the state’s Democratic primary Tuesday. The mother of seven — five biological offspring and two stepchildren — works as a professional clown along with her husband of three years.
Clark is known as “Kuddles the Clown,” a hip-hop clown who raps, makes balloon animals and does face-painting for children’s birthday parties. But she’s deadly serious in discussing Detroit and Michigan’s political issues. Her biggest gripe is Snyder’s use of an emergency manager in Detroit and Flint where the cost-cutting decision to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River proved catastrophic.
“The governor is basically managing Michigan like a business, and it’s not working for the people,” Clark said. “What kind of mess is that? The democracy has been ripped away from us. Our votes don’t count.”
Candidates hoping to earn her support should talk about bringing back local control, she added. “I want them to say that this is unconstitutional. This can’t be,” she said. “They need to say that it wouldn’t happen anywhere else, and that’s a sin and a shame.”