My Iowa Takeaway: A Case For Flint Debate

My Iowa Takeaway: A Case For Flint Debate

The election to succeed President Barack Obama officially commenced in Iowa last night, but the results of the Iowa Democratic Caucus had to wait until the morning. The Democratic side, in particular, showed us two things: 1. Secretary Hillary Clinton demonstrated once again that she is a veteran, professional campaigner; adroit at building and unleashing a well-oiled machine that includes an undeniable ground game. 2. Senator Bernie Sanders demonstrated that his meteoric rise, as he himself said, “Should not be underestimated.” The junior senator from Vermont made history, in August 2015 some polls had him down by more than 30 points, and yesterday he managed to virtually tie with Clinton, who narrowly achieved an “apparent” victory, due, in some cases, to coin tosses.

Both campaigns now move on to the Granite State, New Hampshire. The primary just got a bit more interesting, not only has it become a two person race, since former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced he would suspend his campaign, but also because both campaigns have agreed to participate in another debate in New Hampshire. The Democratic National Committee, under pressure to schedule more debates just announced it would permit the debate, which is set for February 4 and moderated by MSNBC anchors Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow.

With all due respect to New Hampshire, it’s where the election heads next that will really determine the ultimate outcome. That’s because it heads to regions of the country with more diverse populations than Iowa and New Hampshire, including Nevada in the Southwest and South Carolina in the South. In fact, after February, the election includes states where people of color make up a significant portion of the electorate. These are places where it will take more than one-liner sound-bites about racial/environmental justice to resonate with black and brown voters, especially millennials. This brings me to Flint, Michigan, the global poster child right now for both racial and environmental justice. Flint’s population, many of them children, are suffering from an abject failure of government to do its primary task: protect the health and safety of all citizens.

While polls show that Senator Sanders has a major deficit with voters of color, specifically African Americans, I would argue that both candidates have a black and brown voter problem. For Secretary Clinton’s part, her issue seems to be the idea that people of color should fall in line and vote for her due to her husband’s legacy and good standing with African Americans, even though he didn’t necessarily include them in positions and platforms of power. Let me be clear, I don’t believe it’s fair to automatically associate Secretary Clinton’s policies with former President Bill Clinton. That said, Secretary Clinton rightfully prides herself on being one of the most active First Ladies in our nation’s history as it pertains to policy development… in the tradition of First Ladies including, but not limited to, Abigail Adams, Nancy Reagan and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt. And recently, many leaders in the African American community have highlighted how some of former President Clinton’s policies adversely impacted the Black Community from criminal justice, to welfare reform, to free trade agreements. As such, she must either publicly embrace or distance herself from these policies so that voters of color have a clear distinction between Secretary and former President Clinton…not just expect the black and brown vote.

Steve Phillips compounds this issue of entitlement exceptionally in his latest book Brown is the New White, where he said, “Yet despite meaningful and significant progress in the public policy realm, Democrats and progressives have failed to maximize the opportunity to build and secure a lasting multiracial political majority for positive social change by investing in, strengthening, and solidifying the communities that comprised the Obama coalition. As a result, we are at risk of losing the advantage the demographic revolution has presented us, and of losing the chance to move toward becoming a more just and equitable society.”

For Senator Sanders’ part, his issue with black and brown voters has more to do with establishment. By which I mean establishing himself with people of color in the first place, many simply had no idea who he was until now. This is largely due to the fact that he comes from one of the whitest and smallest states in the country that is known more for its ice cream, cheese and psychedelic rock bands than its politicians.

Recently, it has been proposed to hold a Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan. This debate should not only happen, but should solely focus on racial and environmental justice. Last week, Secretary Clinton released an Op. Ed. on MSNBC discussing the situation in Flint, as well as general racial justice issues facing our country. Therein, she makes a bold call for action to address these issues without getting into specifics. Senator Sanders has likewise released both a racial justice platform and his Climate Protection and Justice Act to the Senate. A Flint debate focussed on environmental and climate justice would be an excellent opportunity for Secretary Clinton to offer more detail on her plans and how they directly benefit people of color and to contrast them with Senator Sanders’ proposals.

African Americans are not monolithic voters. However, I think it’s safe to say that I speak for most, if not all, African Americans when I say that our votes should be fought for and earned with the same vigor and conviction as white soccer moms in Pennsylvania and Ohio suburbs. A debate that focuses solely on racial and environmental justice issues would make this possible. It’s understandable why the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wanted to avoid a debate on race in 2008, when then candidate Obama would have had a profound advantage over then candidate Clinton. But now we have two white candidates facing off, and all indications show that the Democratic Primary will last through March or even longer. To that end, why NOT let this debate happen? And if they do, there is no better venue right now than Flint, Michigan: ground zero for the synthesis of racial, environmental and economic injustice.