Marco Rubio leads GOP candidates in shrugging off Flint water crisis: “That’s not an issue that, right now, we’ve been focused on"

Rubio explains that he hasn't been "fully briefed" to avoid the issue, while all other GOP candidates stay mum

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published January 19, 2016 2:42PM (EST)

  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

The residents of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water for nearly 18 months after a state-appointed emergency manager switched water sources as a cost-saving measure.

Bernie Sanders has since called for the resignation of Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Hillary Clinton has demanded federal long-term health monitoring of the children affected by the lead contamination of Flint's water stream. President Obama declared a federal emergency over the Flint water crisis.

But as for the leading Republican presidential candidates on the apparent poisoning of nearly 100,000 Americans? Nary a peep.

"That's not an issue that right now we've been focused on for me to give you a deeply detailed answer on what the right approach should be," freshman Florida Senator Marco Rubio told reporters at a campaign stop in Coralville, Iowa, on Monday. Rubio declined to comment on Flint's crisis which, studies have already shown, left many children under five with elevated lead levels in their blood.

"[I]n general I believe the federal government's role in some of these things (is) largely limited unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue," Rubio further explained. "So I'd love to give you a better answer on it," he continued. "It's just not an issue we've been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and the state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues."

The National Guard is currently handing out filters and bottled water to residents. Here's a quick summation of the Flint water crisis, via the Daily Beast:

In 2014, the impoverished city stopped buying water from Detroit but residents still needed a potable supply while awaiting the construction of a pipeline to Lake Huron. Sourcing water from the Flint River was seen as an affordable option but investigators now know that, after the switch, the highly corrosive river water leached lead from pipes into people’s homes.


In November, the EPA announced that it would investigate whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) violated the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) by not treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agentbefore sending it through the system. And at the end of the year, MDEQ head Dan Wyant resigned after an independent task force faulted his agency’s handling of the situation.

Of course Rubio is hardly the only Republican presidential candidate avoiding the topic of a Republican governor overruling the will of the voters to force out their duly-elected representatives in favor of a hand-picked emergency manager, who then oversaw the poisoning of the town's water source as a means to save money.

Last September, Texas senator and leading Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz sent his father, Rafael, to the state to court a Flint-area gathering of anti-abortion activists. Cruz has yet to publicly comment on the Flint water crisis.

In fact, it appears as though Monday's question to Rubio on the campaign trail was the first time any Republican presidential candidate has addressed the disaster that has been brewing for months before exploding into a national controversy.

And while Michigan State Attorney General Bill Schuette said he will investigate how the crisis unfolded to determine if any laws were broken, Democrats -- at least those running for president -- have squarely arrived at a conclusion.

At Sunday's Democratic debate, Clinton directly called out Gov. Snyder for his response to the crisis. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care,” she said. Sanders then piled-on, repeating his call for Snyder's resignation.

“We would be outraged if this happened to white kids, and we should be outraged that it’s happening right now to black kids,” Clinton continued at a Martin Luther King Day event in Columbia, South Carolina on Monday, calling the crisis “a civil rights issue.”

For his part, Gov. Snyder attempted to deflect blame for the crisis by complaining of Clinton's "politicizing" of the issue:

As Democrats force Flint's water crisis into the national debate, it remains to be seen if Republican presidential candidates will even be pressed on the issue by reporters and how, if at all, they defend a Republican governor (once touted for his technocratic approach to governance) who has admittedly referred to the water crisis as "a disaster."

“It’s clearly a negative on what we’ve accomplished since I’ve been governor," Snyder recently admitted.

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By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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2016 Republican Primary Aol_on Flint Flint Water Crisis Gop Gov. Rick Snyder Marco Rubio