16 places that shaped the 2016 election: Flint, Mich.

The City of Flint Water Plant is illuminated by moonlight. (Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

Lead contamination of the Flint, Mich., municipal water system was an issue that seemed tailor-made for Hillary Clinton. The families affected were overwhelmingly African-American, part of her core constituency. Those responsible were largely officials in the administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican (although, inconveniently, at least one midlevel official in the federal Environmental Protection Agency was implicated as well). And there was no immediately obvious way for her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, to pin the problem on Wall Street banks or multinational corporations, although he certainly tried.

But it was Clinton who saw the potential in the issue and put it on the national agenda, in a rare instance of political campaigning by itself achieving some concrete good. That came at the end of the fourth Democratic primary debate, in January, when the moderator, Lester Holt, threw open the floor to the three candidates (Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley) to bring up “anything that you really wanted to say tonight that you haven’t gotten a chance to say.”

Clinton jumped at the chance:

Hillary Clinton speaks at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, Mich. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

“Well, Lester, I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what’s happening in Flint, Mich., and I think every single American should be outraged. 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.”

From that point on, Clinton more or less owned the issue. She was endorsed shortly after by Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver. The eighth primary debate was held, at Clinton’s request, in Flint itself, and the lead contamination — a result of cost-cutting moves by a state-appointed fiscal manager — dominated much of the discussion. Both Clinton and Sanders called for Snyder to step down, although they were careful to sidestep questions about possible criminality. The issue wasn’t sufficient to carry Michigan for Clinton, but it may have held down Sanders’ margin of victory in the primary, held just two days later.

Republicans, meanwhile, didn’t see much to be gained from criticizing a Republican governor over a problem that affected an overwhelmingly Democratic city; when questioned, both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio said they regarded water quality as a local concern. The issue resurfaced in September, as part of Trump’s “what have you got to lose” effort to appeal to minorities, or at least demonstrate concern for them for the benefit of moderate swing voters. On a quick visit to Flint, he toured a water-treatment plant and then spoke at a small gathering at a black church. His denunciation of Clinton was interrupted by a gentle reminder from the pastor that he hadn’t been invited to give a campaign speech. He also told a joke, which later gained a fair bit of Internet notoriety:

“It used to be cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.”

Reporters who were there said it didn’t get much of a laugh. — By Jerry Adler

 

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