FLINT, Mich. — Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee steered his Chevy SUV through the streets of this hard-luck Rust Belt town. He looked puzzled for a moment as he saw a long line of cars outside the local Methodist church late on a midweek morning.
"What is going on here? Oh, I bet it’s water distribution," said the Michigan lawmaker, quickly realizing volunteers were putting free cases of bottled water and lead-fighting vegetables into cars that had been lined up for hours.
That scene has played out repeatedly in Flint during the past four years as the city has battled one of the worst municipal water crises in modern history.
A fateful cost-cutting decision by the state, coupled with aging pipelines, left the city’s 100,000 residents with unhealthy levels of lead in their water. The result threatened brain damage in children and corroded engine parts at the local General Motors Co. factory.
Flint, already one of the poorest cities in the nation due to the demise of domestic auto manufacturing, became the poster child for the nation’s infrastructure woes and lost faith in government. And even now, months after the state did extensive tests to declare the water safe, many residents are skeptical that they can drink from their taps.
"No one trusts them for good reason. Trust is maybe the biggest casualty of the water crisis," said Kildee, who only drinks bottled or filtered water in Flint and at his home in a neighboring township.
The situation has turned Kildee, elected less than a year before the water crisis began, into a leading congressional voice on infrastructure. He helped secure $170 million in federal funds for upgrading his hometown’s contaminated water supply system.
"We have not gotten everything we want, but everything we’ve gotten, we’ve gotten because of Dan Kildee," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she visited Flint as part of a congressional delegation in September.
With the new Congress and the White House eager to move on a large public works package, Kildee will be a player, given his success in getting aid for Flint and his ability to tell the story of his water-ravaged community.
Understanding the veteran lawmaker’s approach — a large dose of economic pragmatism coupled with a progressive’s faith that government can take on big projects — offers a sense of how Capitol Hill might find common ground on infrastructure.
A broader infrastructure push
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who is expected to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, credits Kildee for taking a "leadership role" on water infrastructure and expects he’ll be "very engaged" on any emerging package.
DeFazio said Democrats will try to move fast on infrastructure next year. "If we don’t get something major done in six months, it won’t happen, because we enter the presidential cycle. My intention is to get something done," he adds.
Kildee is eager to join the push for a new infrastructure package in the new Congress and is quick to use Flint as example of what happens when roadways, water systems, schools and other infrastructure are underfunded for decades.
"The Flint water crisis is the strongest argument that we can make that we have to breathe life back into these places, or we’re just going to pay a massive price for it. If that doesn’t stand up as an argument for this kind of investment, I don’t think anything will," said Kildee, who estimates that local, state and federal funding for responding to the Flint water crisis tops half a billion dollars.
Kildee is enough of a pragmatist to realize that arguing there’s a moral imperative to repair the nation’s aging road, bridges, railways and schools alone won’t get Congress to a bipartisan deal on infrastructure.
"If we rely only on people who think about environmental justice to solve this problem, this problem is never going to be solved. The orientation of most of the people I deal with is economic," said Kildee.
Like the White House and most on Capitol Hill, Kildee favors a "go big" on infrastructure approach, but wants specific spending marked for older, industrial cities such as Flint. Without a focus on those economically downtrodden cities, he fears new spending would only expand the economic gap between communities facing challenges and those that are rapidly growing and thriving.
"What I am pushing is we devise a Marshall Plan for these older cities, so in concert with the effort to rebuild the whole nation’s infrastructure, we’re overinvesting in these weak places to allow them to catch up," said Kildee, a co-chairman of the Urban Caucus who has begun holding roundtables to build support for his idea.
Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), the incoming chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, a group that’s likely to be crucial to moving any infrastructure package, said other lawmakers are willing to listen to Kildee’s view.
"He’s rare in this Congress that he has gotten things done on infrastructure. He can engage as someone who has actually gotten stuff done," Kilmer said.
It’s not only Flint where Kildee is drawing attention on environmental issues.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who had dealt with water-quality issues in his suburban district, said Kildee is seen as credible on water issues given his experience in Flint. Boyle said he and other lawmakers have turned to Kildee for help addressing the emergence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water at sites near former military bases across the country.
Kildee, who has signed on bipartisan legislation to set a federal standard for PFAS in drinking water, calls the contaminant some "bad shit" already hitting communities in his district and around the country.
"I think this is going be a massively expensive problem, and it’s not going away," he adds.
Pushing for Flint
Kildee was doubtful when he first heard about the plan for pumping water from the Flint River until a new, more cost-efficient line could be built to Lake Huron.
"If you are from this town, it sounded like the punchline to a joke," he said, noting that the river runs adjacent to some of the city’s onetime large auto manufacturing plants.
Almost as soon the city switched supplies in 2014, Kildee heard from constituents about water quality. He helped arrange water drives and sought more state testing. But, he says, the "game changer" was when scientific tests during the summer of 2015 showed unsafe levels of lead leaching into the water.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a physician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center who published a study in 2015 that found elevated lead levels in young children from Flint, credits Kildee with standing by her work until it was widely accepted.
"When my research came out and everybody was attacking me, including at the federal level, Congressman Kildee went out and defended me," said Attisha, who believes Flint shows the risks that comes in denying rather than accepting basic science research.
Her study eventually led the state to switch the city back to its original water supply, and Kildee would host her as his guest at the State of the Union.
Kildee’s first legislative move on Flint was relatively modest, but he made sure it was bipartisan so he could notch an early success. He joined with then-Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to get overwhelming House support for a measure that when signed into law gave EPA 24 hours to notify the public when elevated lead is found in drinking water.
His bigger challenge would be convincing a GOP-controlled Congress that it should help fund the replacement of Flint’s water lines, a move many conservatives saw as a state and local responsibility.
The Michigan lawmaker sought to personalize the city’s crisis, arguing that its residents were the victims of a government error. He made that case by highlighting Flint’s struggles in floor speeches, taking multiple congressional delegations to the city and buttonholing any lawmakers he could to warn that the same thing could happen in their districts.
"There’s a tendency, absent other information, for policymakers and others to look at the condition in these cities and blame the local leadership, public and private, for the conditions. It’s an easy thing to do because it absolves state and federal policymakers from any responsibility for the conditions," said Kildee.
His efforts helped, but it also would take pairing Flint aid with a popular water projects bill and a year-end spending bill to get the funds in place in late 2016. And even then, getting it through the Senate required some legislative muscle from Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
Stabenow said Kildee gained "valuable firsthand" experience in addressing infrastructure needs as they partnered to pass the Flint aid package.
"It was a long, hard-fought victory for the people of Flint, and I know he will use that experience to help other communities address these issues," she said.
From East Flint to Broadway
On the east side of Flint, long the rougher part of this town, Kildee stood in a empty lot on a quiet street filled with mostly vacant, single-family homes that have fallen into disarray with the city’s economy.
The house Kildee lived in for the first four years of his life once stood here, until he ordered it torn down as part of his efforts as a county official to remove thousands of blighted structures in Flint.
"I looked at the foreclosure list and thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it,’" said Kildee, who recalled being flooded with memories as he kicked in the front door, walked into his first bedroom and then sat on the front porch the day the house was razed.
An expert in land issues, Kildee was a leader in the shrinking cities movement before being elected in his first run for Congress in 2012. He won the seat held for more than three decades by his uncle, Dale Kildee, an under-the-radar, New Deal-style Democrat.
Easily re-elected to a fourth term last month, Kildee did not expect to become a leading voice on water issues. He asked for and got a seat on the Financial Services Committee, where he expected to work on urban development policy.
As a county official, Kildee became a national expert on redevelopment by finding ways to make it easier for the county to take over and then control or tear down abandoned properties via land banks.
He created one of the nation’s first in Flint, which led to more than $100 million in redevelopment projects. He also found novel ways to spread federal funds over multiple brownfield sites in the same county.
Kildee, 60, has spent almost his entire adult life in elected office after winning a seat on the local school board at 18 while a freshman in college in 1977. He ran as a student activist, one frustrated with attempts to cut a peer counseling program, and wore an African dashiki to his first board meeting.
"It was a shock. It was part of the takeover of the school board by a new majority; it was a shift away from the banking and business community being in charge to more like a community-controlled school board," he said.
Kildee jokes that he may have seemed a radical at the time, but he was not nearly as outrageous as his former Flint high school friend, future filmmaker Michael Moore, who won a seat on a neighboring school board around the same time. Moore spent much of his time on the board suing his own district.
The lawmaker said the two remain "good friends," and he even made a special appearance in Moore’s recent one-man show on Broadway. He used his interview segment of the show with Moore to warn that there are potential Flints across the country.
Asked about his long-term goals in Congress, Kildee does not rule out one day running for a leadership post, though he passed on a run for governor this year to stay in the House. His role as the face of Flint won’t hurt, nor will the $1.7 million he raised or donated for 84 House candidates in the most recent election cycle.
But Kildee said he’s just as content to stay in his current role as an advocate for investing in the rebuilding of America’s older cities.
He adds, "There aren’t very many of us who bring it up very often. I am like a broken record: Any opportunity I have, I raise the issue."