Howes: Political games stalling help in Flint crisis

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Flint — Forget all the talk about the Flint water crisis being a nonpartisan issue. It’s not true.

Gov. Rick Snyder admitted last week from Zurich, one of Europe’s most expensive cities, that he’s “got a pretty full schedule” that would not put him in Flint when President Barack Obama is set Wednesday to tour the city beset by a long-running public health crisis.

Seriously? Even if the White House publicly announced the visit without first notifying the governor’s office or requesting a meeting, as a source close to the situation insists, you’d think arguably the most embattled governor in the nation would have the good sense to greet the presidential visit with outward diplomacy. But no.

“Guess his schedule got a little freed up,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest jabbed back at Snyder on Monday. “We’re obviously pleased that he will be in Flint on that day.”

Not helpful, however justified the shot may be following the governor’s indecorous riff from Switzerland. The people of Flint, victims of governmental failure at the local, federal and, especially, state levels, deserve more from the politicians whose regulators so catastrophically failed Michigan’s second-largest minority-majority city.

Flint residents weary from water crisis

They’re not getting it. Flint’s water crisis is a full-blown partisan free-for-all whose players are eager to work every angle except one: what will most quickly help the city and its leaders to fix fundamental issues and attenuate the anxiety eating at the body politic?

Michigan Republicans cannot escape the fact that their party controls the Legislature, the governor’s office and the state bureaucrats. They botched Flint’s switch to Flint River water from its 50-year relationship with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and they mostly own it.

Democrats cannot resist the political opportunity offered by the epic failure of a Republican administration and its assumed air of reliable technical competence. The Flint debacle, combined with tone-deaf politics exemplified by Snyder’s gaffe in Zurich, is a target too tempting to ignore.

And the governor is pivoting back to where he should have been last week when the presidential visit was announced. He subsequently requested a meeting with the president, which is expected to take place after Snyder greets Obama at Flint’s Bishop International Airport.

The atmosphere is unmistakable: Helping Flint continues to take a back seat to scapegoating, blame shifting and partisan bickering. From the Democratic presidential campaign and Democrats in Congress to tea party senators in Washington and the Republican-controlled state Legislature in Lansing, excuses and posturing are holding Flint hostage to a nightmare it did not create.

No level of government is blameless. As much as the governor’s office and the state departments of Environmental Quality and Community Health shoulder much of the responsibility for the crisis, and they do, the city’s Public Works Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency also share blame — but don’t expect the president to claim accountability on behalf of the EPA.

The gamesmanship is stalling much-needed relief packages for infrastructure improvements, for expanding Medicaid to children and pregnant women impacted by lead-tainted water, for testing to determine the scope of the damage and to establish long-term monitoring programs.

Mayor Karen Weaver’s working relationship with the governor is showing signs of strain. The shift to a more confrontational tone may endear the new mayor to partisans and Snyder critics, but it’s not clear how that would bolster the state’s efforts (or willingness) to accelerate aid to Flint.

“We’ve got to put the sound bites aside and remember what this is really about,” says U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. “We’ve got to get solutions for these kids. This is a mess, but this is a mess we’ve got to fix.”

She’s right: The games need to end. Amariyanna Copeny, the 8-year-old whose letter to the president prompted his visit, shouldn’t need to care why a U.S. senator from Utah is blocking legislation to help her city. Nor should she and her neighbors necessarily be impressed that the governor, back from his week-long trade mission to Europe, is back to drinking filtered Flint water.

The time for symbolism is long over. Politicians on both sides of the aisle need to check their partisan agendas, to end their butt-covering and to quit their hollow gestures. They need to do their jobs.

Four months ago, the president declared a state of emergency in Flint. Yet aid in Congress is stalled, notwithstanding a Senate hearing scheduled for Thursday on a $220 million package to help Flint and other communities. The governor is pushing a $165 million plan to aid Flint in addition to $30 million to offset water bills no longer required to be paid.

Too much of it is not moving, demonstrating just how insidious the partisan foot-dragging continues to be for the people of Flint. Breaking the legislative logjam, Mr. President, would be a lot more valuable to Flint than more words from the nation’s top politician.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.