The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., is exposing the deep rifts within the state’s political system, which Democrats are eager to highlight as they fight to regain the statehouse this year and the governor’s office in 2018.
The situation hit a tipping point last week when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) asked President Obama to declare a state of emergency in the Rust Belt city.
The president did declare an emergency but stopped short of deeming the situation a disaster, which would have freed up more federal money than the $5 million in emergency funds.
Since last fall, Democrats have pelted Snyder with a barrage of criticism. Strong comments have come from a range of Democrats, from Flint’s own Rep. Dan Kildee to presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
At home, the governor is surrounded by his own. The GOP has controlled both chambers of the Legislature since Snyder took office in 2011. Five of the seven state Supreme Court justices are Republican, as are nine of the state’s 14 members of Congress — a product, in part, of a congressional map drawn by Republicans following the 2010 census.
The Wolverine State has long had a solid blue streak. Michiganders have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992 and haven’t put a Republican in the Senate in two decades. A 20th-century economy based in heavy industry built a strong labor influence that remains to this day.
No longer in power, Democrats and other critics of how Republicans have run Michigan are pointing to the Flint debacle as an example of their grievances.
The political landscape allowed many of the glaring problems that led to the water crisis, said Nick Schroeck, director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"That normal system of political checks and balances is not happening in Michigan," he said.
At the heart of the water crisis lies the actions of an ever-changing roster of state-appointed emergency managers, who oversaw a controversial switch in Flint’s drinking water source. The move corroded lead-containing water pipes and slowly poisoned residents in the city of 100,000 (Greenwire, Jan. 18).
A 2012 law Snyder championed created a process for the state to appoint an emergency manager to assume some local government functions if a financial review determined a city was in a "financial emergency."
The law put Republican-appointed officials in control of Democratic city halls, observers say, creating tension between cities and the Capitol in Lansing.
"Flint like Detroit, like Pontiac, like many other cities has gone through horrendous economic transitions with a lot of tension over state control or takeover through declaration of emergency management situations," said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
Flint has had four emergency managers since state lawmakers decided to allow the practice. One of them only stayed in his post for a couple of months.
The emergency manager law was a significant achievement for Snyder early in his first term, said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.
Even with the complications, it won’t be easy for Democrats to take over the Legislature next year. There are currently 63 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the House, with all 110 seats up for grabs this year.
"It’s a real uphill battle," Demas said.
It’s also an open secret that Flint’s congressman, Kildee, is gunning to run for governor in 2018, said Demas. Kildee, who ran briefly in 2010, has strong allies within the labor movement, a must for Michigan Democrats seeking high office.
The Flint water crisis "could be an important message in 2018, depending on how the situation unfolds," said Demas.
Kildee has emerged as one of the most vociferous opponents of the Snyder administration over the water crisis.
"This is not a case of not enough resources; it’s not a case of even something as sad but explainable as incompetence. This is willfully ignoring warning signs because they didn’t want to have a public relations problem," he told E&E Daily last week (E&ENews PM, Jan. 12).
On the other side of the House aisle, Michigan’s GOP delegation has remained silent on Flint and restrained about offering Snyder support. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) joined Democrats in calling for an emergency hearing on the crisis.
Upton also voted in favor — along with Michigan Republican Reps. Candice Miller, Tim Walberg, Dave Trott and Bill Huizenga — of an amendment backed by Kildee and other Democrats meant to promote clean drinking water and weaken GOP legislation targeting an Obama administration proposal (E&E Daily, Jan. 13).
The amendment was, at least in part, an effort by Democrats to get members on the other side of the aisle on the record on drinking water issues amid the problems in Flint.
Snyder won in 2010 with 58 percent of the vote and was re-elected four years later. The founder and CEO of a venture capital company who had never held political office before running for governor, he was portrayed as an expert manager and believer of data-driven decisionmaking.
Snyder "really talked about bringing a kind of competence and innovation and transparency to state government," said Rabe of the University of Michigan. "He put a big, big emphasis on performance measures and performance management, managing by empirical metrics."
At first, the emergency manager system seemed to yield positive results, said Rabe. Detroit’s transition through its bankruptcy proceedings was "remarkable," he said.
Results made Snyder a Republican Party star who could hold strong support in big labor states like Michigan. That makes his fall from grace over the Flint crisis more dramatic.
Sanders’ call for the Michigan governor to resign in the face of the scandal is a strong sign of Snyder’s downturn.
"I mean, you don’t usually see presidential candidates even if they’re from another party slamming another governor from another party who’s not running for office," Rabe said. "It’s a stunning shift for any political figure who is riding pretty high."