Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visited Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code for the first time last week.
The Massachusetts senator toured a community center and a school in the 48217 ZIP code in southwestern Detroit, where playgrounds sit sandwiched between the Great Lake State’s only oil refinery and car manufacturing plants.
“What’s that smell?” Warren says at the start of the video, turning to Tlaib in the backseat of an SUV.
“That’s what my people smell every day,” the congresswoman says. “I thought the smell was normal. I really did. I didn’t realize that it was killing us.”
Just as gobbling fatty snacks at the Iowa State Fair is a rite of passage for top-tier presidential hopefuls, a pilgrimage to the 48217 is now becoming a touchstone for any contender who wants to be taken seriously on the nation’s environment.
Warren, citing a packed scheduled, passed on a chance to visit the area in July, when community activists invited all 20 candidates participating in the second round of Democratic primary debates in Detroit. Of the three who agreed to come ― former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ― only Inslee, then running as the race’s long-shot climate candidate, showed up. It was Inslee’s third time in the 48217.
Warren, a potential front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said she’d adopt much of Inslee’s book-length stack of climate proposals when the Evergreen State governor dropped out to run for reelection at home in August. Now she’s covering the same ground, visiting the kind of frontline community that could lend her credibility as her campaign courts older Black voters, a key demographic to winning the nomination.
The area, crisscrossed by highways and choked by air emissions, made a powerful backdrop for Warren just days after releasing a meaty proposal to restore union membership. The policy outline came out just as the United Auto Workers union was preparing for a long-haul strike against Detroit giant General Motors.
After photographing legally questionable flaring ― when excess gas is vented into the air and burned ― at the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery next door to the Kemeny Recreation Center, Warren drove by Salina Elementary School, where Tlaib says officials only recently installed air filtration systems to protect students from cancer-causing particulate matter spewed from the neighboring AK Steel plant.
“These big corporations have enough muscle with the government that they squeeze it to get tax breaks. So the cost of running these schools and keeping these roads paved fall disproportionately on you,” Warren says to a trio of activists. “So you’re not only paying the cost in terms of what you breathe, what your children breathe, your bodies ― you’re also paying the cost out of pocket.”