Michigan issues take center stage at Flint Democratic debate

CNN Democratic Debate at the University of Michigan in Flint, Michigan.

David Scott Holloway

CNN Democratic Debate at the University of Michigan in Flint, Michigan.

Audra Gamble

FLINT, Mich. – In stark contrast to the Republican debate held in Detroit on March 3, issues facing Michiganders took center stage during the seventh Democratic debate on March 6.

The debate, held at the Whiting Auditorium on the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, gave voters a last chance to choose a Democratic candidate before heading to the polls on March 8 for Michigan’s primary election.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) battled it out on trade policies, the auto industry bailout, gun law reform and, most importantly, the crumbling Detroit Public School system and the Flint water crisis.

Starting off by addressing the internationally recognized crisis in Flint, where citizens were poisoned by lead in their tap water, both candidates called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

“What I heard and saw (in Flint) literally shattered me,” Sanders said. “It was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned.

“I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.”

Sanders has repeatedly called for Snyder’s resignation, but Clinton’s similar statement was a first for her.

“I agree,” Clinton said. “The governor should resign or be recalled, and we should support the efforts of citizens to achieve that.”

The policy-heavy debate showed a more aggressive side of Sanders, who attacked Clinton for her voting record from the 90s. The Vermont senator also interrupted Clinton twice, resulting in perhaps the most vitriolic exchanges to date on the Democratic side of the 2016 election.

Though Clinton has held a large lead in Michigan going into the primary season, that gap may be closing. According to a new poll from Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Clinton currently leads the Democratic race at 51.9 percent, but Sanders is within the margin of error, trailing at 46.9 percent among likely Democratic voters. However, other polls still show Clinton ahead by large margins in the state.

On Tuesday, the two candidates will compete for the 147 Democratic delegates Michigan has to offer. The delegates will be allocated proportionally – some at the congressional district level and some at the statewide level. Additionally, 17 of those delegates are super delegates, who can change their loyalty at any time.

Sanders, who is trailing Clinton in the delegate count, is pushing hard for a win in Michigan, highlighting his opposition to trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP that Clinton has supported.

“I was on a picket line in (the) early 1990s against NAFTA because you didn’t need a Ph.D in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour,” Sanders said.

Clinton hit back by pointing out Sanders’ opposition to the auto bailout in 2009.

“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said. “(Sanders) voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”

Sanders defended his position on the bailout, and said he voted against the legislation because it also bailed out corporate America and Wall Street.

“I believe that the recklessness, the greed and the illegal behavior of Wall Street drove this country into the worst economic downturn in modern history of the United States of America,” Sanders said. “I will be damned if it was the working people of this country who had to bail out the crooks on Wall Street.”

Michigan, which has consistently voted for Democrats in presidential elections, is becoming increasingly important for candidates seeking to rack up delegates heading into the party conventions. As such, some major players headed to Flint to campaign for the presidential hopefuls.

Both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, showed support for Clinton.

“I think Hillary Clinton is the type of person to bring people together to get things done,” Peters said. “To me, it’s about practical, common sense ability to deliver results. Hillary Clinton has done that throughout her career.”

For Sanders, celebrity Mark Ruffalo threw his support behind the political revolution the senator calls for.

“(Sanders) really understands the science behind (global warming), so I was pleased to hear such a powerful stance behind it tonight,” Ruffalo said. “The message that Bernie is giving us is one of imagination, is one of great ideas and one that takes America to its greatest potential.”

Voting opens on Tuesday at 7 a.m. and polls will close at 8 p.m. To look up your precinct number and place of polling, visit www.vote.michigan.gov/mvic