Flint — Gov. Rick Snyder’s handling of Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis has become a rallying cry for Democrats critical of GOP austerity — from presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton to state politicians plotting election-year contrasts with Republicans.
Clinton and Democratic presidential rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont closed Sunday night’s nationally televised debate with comments lambasting Snyder’s response in Flint. On Monday, Clinton said the contaminated drinking water in the majority-black city is “a civil rights issue.”
“We would be outraged if this happened to white kids, and we should be outraged that it’s happening right now to black kids,” Clinton said at a Martin Luther King Day event in Columbia, S.C.
Snyder took a rare swing back on Monday, saying Clinton as well as filmmaker Michael Moore are “politicizing” Flint’s water emergency for personal gain.
“People can draw their own conclusions, but that’s what it appears to me,” Snyder told The Detroit News after speaking at an MLK Day breakfast at the University of Michigan-Flint.
Snyder admitted to the National Journal on Monday that Flint could be his Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s a disaster,” he told the Journal’s Ron Fournier when queried about some critics’ comparison to the 2005 natural disaster in New Orleans that symbolized government mismanagement. “It’s clearly a negative on what we’ve accomplished since I’ve been governor.”
The Republican governor, who has apologized repeatedly for the lead contamination of the city’s water, said he is focused on solutions for the struggling city as he prepares to deliver a crucial State of the State address Tuesday night. His office has said Snyder plans to focus on his plan for the unprecedented crisis as well as the rest of his 2016 agenda.
Michigan Democrats said Clinton, meanwhile, is showing leadership by calling for the federal government to monitor the health of thousands of Flint children who potentially may have been lead-poisoned by the city’s Flint River drinking water supply since April 2014.
Flint switched water sources in 2014 to save money under the leadership of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who is now managing the financially beleaguered Detroit Public Schools.
“I think the governor’s incredibly thinned skinned on this issue,” Democratic consultant Joe DiSano said Monday. “Tragedies like this happen when you run government like a business, and this is wholly owned by the Michigan Republican Party and Gov. Snyder.”
At the end of Sunday night’s debate, Clinton said every American “should be outraged” by what is happening in Flint, a predominantly poor and African-American community where residents cannot drink their own water because of lead contamination.
Snyder “acted as though he really didn’t care” about Flint residents and “basically stonewalled” on initial requests for help, Clinton said.
“Obviously, I care,” Snyder said in response to Clinton’s comments Monday morning in Flint. “I’m here today. We’ve done a number of actions. We’re going to keep working on putting solutions in place.
“And what I would say is, politicizing the issue doesn’t help matters. Let’s focus in on the solution and how to deal with the damage that was done and help the citizens of Flint and make Flint a stronger community.”
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who met with Clinton campaign aides last week, said Clinton’s concern about her city’s residents is genuine.
“It’s not something that she just blurted out to be part of the Democratic debate,” Weaver said. “We’ve been talking for some time, and she has always said that whatever she can do to help, she is willing to help Flint.”
Independent scientists had raised concerns about the water quality and lead levels months before the Snyder administration on Oct. 1 confirmed their findings. A state emergency was declared two weeks ago.
By contrast, Republican presidential candidates have been silent on the issue. One candidate said in Iowa on Monday he hasn’t been briefed on it.
“That’s not an issue that, right now, we’ve been focused on,” Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told The Detroit News before a speech at a hotel outside Iowa City. “For me to give you a deeply detailed answer on what the right approach should be on it, other than to tell you, in general, I believe the federal government’s role in some of these things are largely limited, unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue.”
The attacks on Snyder from liberal activists, Hollywood stars and Democrats irk state Rep. Joe Graves, a Genesee County Republican.
“When is Hillary going to resign over Benghazi, where people actually died?” said Graves, referencing the deadly 2012 attack on diplomatic compound in Libya while Clinton was secretary of state. “The finger pointing has been a little absurd and over the top. ... Can you imagine if conservatives were stirring up this kind of hate mongering?”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont renewed his call for Snyder to resign during Sunday’s debate.
But Howard Edelson, a Democratic consultant from Ann Arbor, said Sanders’ tactic of calling for Snyder to resign “is a little premature.”
He argued Clinton’s implication of class and racial reasons for the state’s slow response to months of complaints by Flint residents about the city’s foul-tasting brownish water “is right on target.”
“This is going to play out for the rest of the year and, depending on how it’s handled, it will have an impact here in Michigan at the presidential level, and in the state House, and Republicans could lose control,” Edelson said Monday.
Rep. Adam Zemke, chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, said Democrats will focus their criticism of the Flint debacle on holding state officials accountable for failing to require corrosion control in the water to prevent lead contamination.
“I really genuinely hope that Flint does not become a political issue,” Zemke said Monday.
Democrats also will push for making governor’s office records subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, he said.
“We’re definitely going to campaign on good government,” the Ann Arbor Democrat said.
Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5 and last week deployed the Michigan National Guard to aid efforts to distribute bottled water, home filters and water testing kits to Flint residents.
The National Guard was expected to have roughly 70 members on the ground by Monday, double its original commitment. To date, water response teams have visited more than 16,300 Flint homes, according to the state. They’ve distributed more than 26,500 cases of water, 50,200 filters and 4,700 water testing kits.
The Obama administration on Saturday declared a federal emergency in the Flint area, paving the way for $5 million in aid, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Snyder’s request to declare a major disaster and provide $96 million in assistance.
“It is disappointing because we could use the additional resources,” said Snyder, who is preparing to appeal the decision.
The governor, in brief remarks at the UM Flint breakfast, said he understands Flint residents are angry about the water and again apologized for the state’s role in the public health crisis.
Despite the repeated apologies, Democrats see Snyder’s handling of the Flint crisis as an indictment on the 2012 emergency manager law, which Snyder signed after voters repealed his first EM law. Emergency managers are appointed when cities run into serious financial trouble.
“This has happened entirely under Republican rule, it’s a Republican law,” DiSano said.
GOP consultant Stu Sandler said Snyder is right to focus on the emergency response and sidestep attacks from Democrats.
“Snyder has always been a guy who doesn’t take credit and doesn’t lay blame. He just goes about fixing problems,” Sandler said. “There will be time to sort the politics out afterward, but right now they just need to deal with the issue.”
Staff Writer Tony Paul contributed.