Flint water crisis prompts Schuette, Whitmer to accuse each other of hurting victims

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Bill Schuette.

While the Flint water crisis has politically damaged Gov. Rick Snyder, it remains an issue in the governor's race where Democrats have accused the Republican attorney general of negligence despite the criminal charges he is pursuing against state officials. 

Democrats including gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer have attacked GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette for purportedly ignoring early complaints about the Flint water crisis. They also have resurrected allegations from this summer’s Republican primary, when then-candidate Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said Schuette’s investigation and prosecution in Flint were politically charged.

Schuette has denied both claims. The attorney general's office forwarded complaints to the appropriate agency, he said, as he would with any other case.

Schuette's special prosecutor has made plea deals with four Flint and former state officials while pursuing criminal charges against 11 remaining Flint and Michigan officials, including involuntary manslaughter charges against six state and city officials. The attorney general has argued the safest political route would have been not to charge anyone.

Whitmer is “undermining the investigation” and putting her politics ahead of Flint victims with her continued attacks during the campaign, he said.

“I took on the system, the establishment so we’d have justice before politics,” Schuette said.

Although Whitmer has promoted her accusations in television ads, political experts agree the issue appears to have little resonance among most voters going into Tuesday's election. And the lead contamination crisis seems to have resulted in little political change, they said.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said Wednesday that Gov. Rick Snyder is not being charged with any crimes related to the Flint’s lead-contaminated water but left the door open to the possibility.

“I can’t even tell you that it had any real (political) impact in the Flint area, other than changing mayors and even that might have been inevitable,” said David Forsmark, a Republican political consultant based out of Flushing, who was referring to Karen Weaver's election over Dayne Walling in November 2015.

Snyder has been reviled by Flint's residents for the public health disaster. Two of his top health officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of people who died during a 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak that coincided with the lead contamination. He has not endorsed in the governor's race.

For Flint residents, it's unclear whether a changing of guard in the state’s top office is enough to restore their trust in government and the agencies meant to keep them safe.

Complaints and prosecutions

Before Democrats accused Schuette of doing too little about Flint, Republican primary foe Calley argued Schuette politicized his investigation in Flint, calling it a “gross abuse of power.”

At that time, Schuette and Special Prosecutor Todd Flood had charged four appointees of Snyder's administration — two former emergency managers and his two top health officials.

After the primary, an ad paid for by the Democratic Governors Association and authorized by Whitmer cited a Detroit News article detailing 15 separate complaints over water quality in Flint sent to Schuette’s office between April 2014 and February 2015. The commercial faulted Schuette for not acting sooner on those complaints and suggested Schuette signed off on the Flint water plan.

Schuette called the ad “nonsense.” Following department procedure, the complaints were referred to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality because it was the agency responsible for clean drinking water.

When the DEQ failed to act and instead attempted to “cover it up,” the attorney general said he sought charges against state and local officials involved in the cover-up, including Health and Human Services Department Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells.

Gretchen Whitmer campaigns in Flint on April 28 and helps with a bottled water distribution. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate has attacked her GOP opponent Bill Schuette for purportedly ignoring early complaints about the Flint water crisis.

By attacking the investigation in Flint, Whitmer is “putting her political career above the people of Flint” and "undermining justice," Schuette said.

“I’m the only person running for governor who’s done anything to help families in Flint,” Scheutte said. “Gretchen Whitmer’s done nothing.”

Whitmer said she opposed the emergency management act while Senate minority leader, a “critical” component that allowed for state officials to switch the city’s water supply without first getting local input. She criticized the "dollars and cents" that drove decision making in Flint and said Schuette ignored the city's water complaints "until the cameras started showing up."

“The Attorney General’s Office should have descended on the city of Flint the first time they got a complaint," Whitmer said. 

Whitmer has received the endorsement of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who helped uncover the effect of Flint’s lead-tainted water on area children and who has given political contributions to Democrats in the past. Democratic Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also said she is rooting for Whitmer.

Weaver said she’s glad the city has been featured in primary and general election discussions and she agreed that Schuette could have done more when he received initial reports on water issues.

“While people have been charged, that’s as far as it’s gotten,” Weaver said. “We need to have people in there that have the backs of the people of the city of Flint, and actually the backs of people across the state.”

Will it matter on Tuesday?

If the 2016 presidential election is any indication, the Flint water crisis will have very little political influence in the midterms, Forsmark said. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned on the issue but still lost Michigan to Republican Donald Trump, he noted. 

Flint is a majority African-American city and Democratic stronghold. But to turn out new urban voters in Flint, candidates will have to do more than hearken back to missed opportunities and old scandals, said Ronald Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University.

Candidates must also speak about what they plan to accomplish in terms of improving schools and delivering clean water and safe streets, he said. 

"If it's just the Flint water issue, that’s not going to move those voters," Brown said. 

"I think its very difficult for any party to get out new voters, especially to get urban voters to vote, when you’ve not been able to solve your problems that have been around for a very long time," he said. 

Recovery plans for city

Both Schuette and Whitmer have promised to restore bottled water delivery to Flint, which was suspended by Snyder in April because water testing results showed lead levels below federal action guidelines. 

The pair also have committed to continuing the replacement of lead service lines in the city. The city has replaced service lines to 7,548 homes with lead or galvanized service lines, according to the city, out of an estimated 18,000 services lines in Flint. The city is using $97 million in federal and state money for the repairs.

Whitmer wants to provide “wrap around” services to Flint children affected by lead contamination. The Snyder administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, buoyed by federal aid, on providing free water filters, water testing, as well as education, health and economic development programs. 

Regardless, the toughest job for the governor will be to "earn back the trust of the people that she works for because of the people before," Whitmer said.

But Schuette's campaign has questioned Whitmer's plans, citing a video clip last week that they argue reveals the Democrat's intent to end the criminal prosecutions in Flint and the gubernatorial ambitions that motivated her to serve as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016.

In the clip, when asked by a WDIV reporter whether she felt Snyder should be charged in the Flint water investigation, Whitmer said her focus was on restoring bottled water deliveries and expediting pipe replacements. 

“I’m not a criminal attorney that is going to weigh in on whether or not that is something that should happen or that could be even sustained. I don’t know," she said. "I know this: I’m not going to waste anymore tax payer dollars on lawsuits when we have a crisis that still has not been under control.”

Whitmer's campaign has said Schuette's allegations are "absurd" and "desperate," but did not clarify to which lawsuits Whitmer was referring. The incoming attorney general who replaces term-limited Schuette will decided how to handle the investigation and prosecutions.

Republican Tom Leonard has said he would review the evidence in the cases before deciding what, if any, changes he would make.  A former assistant prosecutor in Genesee County, Leonard expects there is ample evidence to which the public isn’t yet privy.

“I will do everything I can to ensure we bring Flint residents justice,” he said.

Democratic hopeful Dana Nessel has said Schuette has created “a mockery of the criminal justice system with his handling of the Flint water crisis.” 

The Plymouth attorney said she would settle the civil suits in a “fair and equitable” manner and re-investigate the criminal prosecutions in Flint to ensure that all responsible parties are charged. Snyder hasn't been charged, but Schuette hasn't closed his investigation.

“I am greatly concerned that this investigation has been a matter of political expediency instead of actual justice,” Nessel said.


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