By Teddy Robertson
The March 6, 2016 Democratic debate is over. That it was held in Flint seems more amazing now than it did the Sunday I stood in a line that snaked around the Whiting parking lot—students, Flint old timers (“I walked to Flint Central 50 years ago!”), guys with union hall physiques and no topcoat, proper ministerial types, politicos in snug-fitting silky suits.
I got a ticket through Flint Neighborhoods United—my name went into a pool of people who posed questions for the candidates. None of my questions were used, but I got an email with two attachments: one pdf for parking and one explaining times and logistics and behavior (“no noisemakers!” no “light-up attire!”).
You’ve heard the clips and spin on that 7th debate. If you are a political junkie like me you’ve now moved on to subsequent debates, town halls, and the primaries. But what fascinated me at the Flint debate was the “pre-game” show—the hour warm up with the locals before broadcast that TV viewers don’t see.
Young volunteers checked my ID on a smart phone list and handed me a green admission card that placed me up in the second balcony; those with purple went to the first balcony. The lucky stiffs with gold cards headed down to the main floor—the first rows of the orchestra designated for the Michigan Democratic delegation who mostly just mill around.
Here in the balconies excitement was palpable as the camera boom would swing toward us and then a communal sigh as it sailed away to more important panoramas below. I spied Mayor Weaver working the main floor.
Up here, people chattered, leaned over the railing looking for friends, peered out intently at the CNN set up on the stage. To my left sat an elderly gentleman, shepherded to his seat by a young woman; he could not hear well but his face a beatific glow. To my right was an Indian couple—she in hijab and madly clicking on her phone. The second balcony has some faithful Democrats, behind me were several who work for Lansing legislative committees. Dayne and Carrie Walling are here, and Deb Cherry too.
I could hear the muffled voice of Wolf Blitzer somewhere beneath us. At 6:55, with some scattered vacant seats remaining in the balconies and the Michigan delegation on main floor still swarming, a CNN warm up man comes down stage at house right: the pre-event routine begins.
Dressed in black and equipped with a multi-mic headset (one mic for us in the audience and one for the stage crew), he calls for everyone, especially the swarming, to take their seats. Then he coaches us on what to expect and what not to do—it’s the live show drill.
At 7:03 the white shirted Flint children’s choir files in to the box seat area and sings “America the Beautiful”—their sweet voices unaffected by lead or politics.
Next comes a roll call of welcomes and thanks to the locals (including an energetic welcome from UM-F Chancellor Sue Borrego). Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair, introduces the phalanx of Michigan Dems and reminds the audience why we are Democrats. But the pre-debate welcome crown goes to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Hurley Medical Center. She strides out to a standing ovation. In her melon-bright shirt and with her dark hair swinging, she speaks smilingly and without a single note—she is our heroine. I think I can see Dr. Mona’s dimples. The Flint audience adores her.
Mr. Multi-mic reappears: “Are we ready to have some fun tonight?” (I’m not kidding; this is in my notes). He gives us our cue—five, four, three minutes to live and clap—and Anderson Cooper turns round to face the audience and Don Lemon settles into his swivel seat.
Once Anderson Cooper introduces the Democratic candidates (Hillary’s applause deepened by the party faithful) we stand for the brisk, bracing rendition adult voices of Flint City Wide Choir’s national anthem. Their powerful voices are directed by Darnell Ishmael, a conductor of heft and brio.
Cooper sketches the context: CNN and Democratic Debate is here in Flint, land of successive plagues—most recently, lead in the water. Number three if you are counting back through the loss of auto jobs in the 1990s and the great recession of 2008.
And the debate begins, shaped by questions from eight local or at least regional folks. The first questions focus on repair of the lead problem and the possibility of candidates using the issue for their campaigns. Then one question each about education, gun control, bringing jobs back, and racism (from Don Lemon). The final two questions concern fracking and a two-part wild card typical of America today—is God relevant? Do you pray? To whom and for whom?
Watching live makes me alert to candidates’ one liners and rhetorical strategies. Out the outset Hillary strikes pay dirt with her “amen to that” (Sanders’ call for Governor Snyder to resign). Her take away line, “It’s raining lead in Flint,” is so deft that people (around me at least) don’t seem to realize this is the first time she’s called for Snyder to go.
Bernie’s works the audience with his powers of concision and irony (“I hate to break it to you . . . ). His line, “We will devote a lot of funds to mental health. Maybe the Republicans could use this” prompts hearty laughter and applause. Alas, his more icy jabs seemed less well grasped, at least, my balcony. “While you were in Europe you may have noticed health care.” “Why should people trust government? I suppose they should trust corporations, maybe Wall Street. I will trust government.”
Bernie’s been called “Handsy.” And his hand gestures warrant anthropological research. I’d wager they come from Jewish life in Brooklyn sixty years ago, but as I say, the scholarship on this awaits.
Hillary has her verbal ticks. You can count on her to open with “Well you know, or “Well, let me start.” She works what I call “the litany” —the list of what she will do, or “I will do more”, or “I have a comprehensive plan.” Sometimes she pads the list with even improbable items: “I will commit to five years and lead in soil and in the houses.”
Really? Lead in our soil? Makes water seem easy.
She promises thoroughness: I will “double, triple check all work when [the water] is fixed.” I’m a bit OCD myself, but even I get weary. Alas, instead of building audience enthusiasm, Hillary’s approach comes across like a list of chores.
The value of Hillary’s machine appears when she’s able to include in the list a last minute initiative (brokered at Mott Community College earlier Sunday afternoon): Flint Waterworks which will pay Flint people to deliver water. This got great applause. No surprise—Mayor Weaver had broached the idea. (See http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/03/hillary_clinton_partners_with.html)
This 7th debate shows Hillary strong, empowered; she now talks over or through moderator Cooper. She interrupts Bernie who, justifiably irritated, says “Can I finish please” and elicits some boos. But no one seems perturbed. Throughout the debate applause seems keyed to the issue and boos signal the intensity of audience attention to local pain—especially like NAFTA.
I was impressed by how much the candidates teach about how bills and legislation work, while at the same time using the tactic of skewering the opponent for voting for or against a bill. Bernie was the first to do this. He reminded the audience that bills have bad and good provisions; if you voted for this, then you voted for that. What was the most important provision in the bill determined whether to vote for or against.
The 1990s provided contested legislative ground: Hillary recites a litany of good economic stats; Bernie retorts that the decade deregulated Wall Street and passed NAFTA—a lot of good, a lot of bad. The 1996 Welfare Reform Bill scapegoated the poor, increased extreme poverty (Bernie); the bill’s best provisions were stripped out by George W. Bush and Republicans (Hillary).
I found myself taking notes—what to look up about the candidates’ positions, past and present.
The final two questions crystalized the rhetorical contrast between Hillary and Bernie. To the question about fracking posed by a UM-Dearborn student Sarah Bellaire, Hillary set out her list of conditions:
“You know, I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it, number one. I don’t support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present. I don’t support it — number three — unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using. So by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”
But Bernie’s weapon of concision wins the audience:
“My answer — my answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.” A burst of applause. “We have gotta be bold now. We gotta transform our energy system to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. We’ve gotta do it yesterday.”
No wonder the students love him.
The announcement of the final question devoted to religion elicited some audience groans (including mine). Its two-part format—is God relevant, why or why not? (addressed to Bernie) and to whom and for whom do you pray (addressed to Hillary) suggested some assumptions. Did the questioner (Denise Ghattas of Flint) assume that Christians pray and not Jews? Or, perhaps Jews only deal with the big theological stuff? The question seemed like a back door that allowed Anderson Cooper to interject a follow-up to Bernie—was he keeping his Judaism in the background?
On the relevance of God Bernie replied
“Well, I think — well, the answer is yes, and I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”
And from Hillary? Five paragraphs on her personal prayer habits. Once again, a list. Well, I was not surprised. The candidates’ responses epitomized their favored rhetorical patterns.
Getting my coat at coat check, I chat with people whom I don’t really know, but in Flint so many faces are familiar we all think we’ve met somewhere. The garderobe system at Whiting remains an old world experience of community.
A rumpled Columbo-type guy passes our line; it’s Mark Ruffalo, smiling and waving at the people who’ve recognized him.
I’m high on politics and so I’ve decided to head over to The Torch to get a beer and a burger. It’s after 11, but the place is nearly full—friends are at the end of the bar waiting for take-out.
The Torch alley sign light is inexplicably out, but this is Flint.
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For a transcript of the 2016 7th Democratic debate, see the Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/06/the-democrats-debate-in-flint-mich-annotated/ , Youtube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSd9HmZXf5I. Or just cut to the chase at Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/here-are-highlights-democratic-debate-flint
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.