New: Sanders voted against Flint water crisis funding in 2016

Demonstrators in Flint, MI in 2016
Demonstrators demand action from the Republican presidential candidates about the water crisis in Flint outside the historic Fox Theater before the GOP presidential debate March 3, 2016 in Detroit | Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

During a critical junction in the Flint water crisis four years ago, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a top Democratic presidential contender, voted against a measure that provided funding to help state and city officials to address the matter.

In December 2016, Sanders voted against a continuing resolution that would have provided up to $170 million funding for Flint. It would have provided funding for the lead-contaminated drinking water system. The resolution included $100 million in capitalization grants to the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that the city could use to replace its water pipes. 

President Barack Obama hugs Mari Copeny, 8, backstage at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich., May 4, 2016. Mari wrote a letter to the President about the Flint water crisis.| Pete Souza via Flickr Public Domain

The measure came after President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency earlier in the year. The U.S. Senate agreed to the measure on a 63-36 vote, including yes votes from both of Michigan’s U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.). 

Obama later signed the bill. 

At the time, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), who represents the area, supported the measure and referred to the “bipartisan fashion” in which the measure passed.

A Sanders campaign spokesperson said that Sanders is a strong ally for Flint residents. 

“No senator has been more committed to ending the Flint water crisis than Bernie Sanders,” said Freeland Ellis, Sanders campaign Midwest regional press secretary. “He is the sponsor of the WATER Act that would provide $35 billion a year to repair our crumbling water infrastructure and to guarantee clean drinking water as a fundamental human right.”

The 2016 Sanders vote was against an omnibus bill that included what critics say was a “poison pill” amendment that was bad for jobs and the environment. Sanders, however, did support funding for Flint in an earlier bill in March (S 2848), the campaign said. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders at an Oct. 27 rally in Detroit | Andrew Roth

Earlier in March 2016, Sanders won the Michigan Democratic primary over campaign rival Hillary Clinton, 49.7% to 48.3%.

The Flint water crisis loomed large in the race. In January 2016, ahead of the Michigan primary, Sanders visited Flint and called on then-Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over decisions that led to the city’s water supply being poisoned with lead. 

Clinton also visited Flint in February and a last-minute debate was scheduled there before the primary.

Two years later, Sanders visited about 30 Flint residents, the same day he attended a rally in Lansing to protest a tax change signed into by law President Donald Trump.

“On my return to Flint this week, I once again saw a community that is economically and socially oppressed and in desperate need of our help,” Sanders said in a written statement. “I also saw some beautiful and strong people of all ages working tirelessly to improve that community. The impact of the water crisis continues to be enormous, and government at all levels is not doing enough. The work of [the Rev. Ezra] Tillman and all those I met in Flint is extraordinary, and I look forward to continuing to work with them.”

‘We’ll scream loud’: Flint residents protest 5 years of water crisis

Last summer, two Sanders campaign surrogates, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and actor Danny Glover, visited Flint residents.

With U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dropping out Thursday, Sanders is poised to face off against fellow Democrats U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Vice President Joe Biden — who served under Obama — in Tuesday’s Michigan presidential primary. A Biden spokesperson declined to comment on Sanders’ 2016 Flint vote.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s highest-ranking elected official, endorsed Biden on Thursday, as did U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), a freshman who flipped the Republican 8th Congressional District in Southeast and mid-Michigan. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) is backing Sanders. 

The Vermont U.S. senator is expected to hold rallies in Detroit on Friday, Dearborn on Saturday and Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids on Sunday. Biden is slated to hold a Detroit rally Monday. Surrogate U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a former presidential hopeful, is scheduled to do events in Detroit and Southfield Friday and another on Saturday in Grand Rapids.

Flint water crisis flagged in Dem presidential infrastructure forum

An Advance call to Sheldon Neeley, former Michigan Legislative Black Caucus chair and current Flint mayor, was not returned before publication. Neeley has not endorsed a presidential candidate, according to his spokesperson. 

The Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus first endorsed U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) for U.S. president last year. After Harris dropped out in December 2019, it backed Biden in February. Chair Keith Williams was critical of Sanders’ 2016 vote.

“If you can’t support Michigan in a situation like Flint,” Williams said, “then why should we vote for you for president?” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.