There were many fine moments from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during Thursday’s debate. One of the most important, in my opinion, was when Bernie said the reaction to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, would be different if it had occurred in a white suburb. He also said he suspected Hillary agreed with him. Indeed, Hillary has taken the lead on drawing attention to the Flint water crisis.
It’s impossible to divorce what’s happening in Flint from its racial context. Communities of color very often bear the brunt of these situations. I am reminded of Kern County, California, the most fracked county in the nation and one with a predominately Latino population. Many had to evacuate their homes due to nosebleeds, headaches, and respiratory problems. I am reminded that a Native American village in Washington State is falling into the sea because of climate change.
I am overjoyed to know that we have two progressive Democratic candidates who have pledged to tackle these issues head on.
Another topic that was brought up during the debate, however, was Bernie’s allegation that Hillary Clinton isn’t a progressive, something that has caused an uproar among Democrats.
It’s dangerous to require ideological purism in this race. It imposes a strict litmus test on progressives, one that Bernie himself might not be able to pass.
Take, for example, the bill he co-sponsored and ushered through Congress to allow Vermont and Maine to dump low-level nuclear waste at a site in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Sierra Blanca is home to a large Latino population with an average income of $8,000. Last year, Politifact called the assertion that Bernie “cosponsored the bill and actively ushered it through Congress” largely accurate.
Activists at the time said the site, which had been used to dump sewage since 1992, had been chosen because the community was poor and Latino. One resident, Lupe Bustamente, told The New York Times:
“I think maybe they choose us because we are a small town, because we are so distant from everyone and because we have no political power. I think maybe they are taking advantage of us. I believe that most of the people are opposed to it.”
According to the Texas Observer, when activists confronted Bernie about sponsoring the bill, he reportedly told them: “My position is unchanged, and you’re not gonna like it.” When asked if he would visit the site in Sierra Blanca, he said, “Absolutely not. I’m gonna be running for re-election in the state of Vermont.”
Bernie claimed to be supporting the bill because the Texas site was supposedly a safer place to dump such waste than Vermont or Maine, but it’s hard to separate the demographics of this poor Latino community from the issue.
Environmental activists argued that “it would be hazardous to locate it in the state’s most seismically active region and above a key groundwater source.” Furthermore, according to the AP:
A subsequent vote by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission on Thursday – the state’s environmental regulators – denied a license for the project. The 3-0 ruling was based on concerns that the dump was planned over a weak geologic fault line beneath the site.
The bill was signed by President Clinton after initially being blocked by progressive hero Sen. Paul Wellstone. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent after changes were made that provided the community legal recourse to oppose the waste disposal. Wellstone’s objections were compelling:
On the first Thursday of February, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Jesus F. Reyes-Heroles, paid a visit to Austin to meet with governor George W. Bush. They met to discuss the state’s plan – endorsed by the governor – to construct a radioactive waste dump less than 20 miles from the Rio Grande, near the tiny West Texas town of Sierra Blanca. As luck would have it, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) convened a press conference in Washington, D.C. that very same Thursday to discuss the very same project. Wellstone called the dump part of a “national pattern of discrimination in the location of waste and pollution” that preyed on those lacking political clout and financial resources.
This entire episode undercuts the notion that Bernie is above “politics as usual.” Of course, to suggest that it revokes his status as a progressive would be unfair, but that’s exactly why imposing strict guidelines of progressivism is dangerous.
As a Latino, environmental justice is a major issue I’m looking for in a candidate. I think overall Bernie does well on this issue. That doesn’t mean I’m okay with everything he’s done.
I firmly believe that the competition between Bernie and Hillary is making them both better candidates, but let’s make sure they are being held to the same standards.
[This post was updated on 2/17/16.]