Dan Kildee’s political star rises amid Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee says he’s been too busy to think about his political future, but experts say his aggressive response to the water contamination crisis in his hometown of Flint has made him a formidable candidate should he run for governor in 2018.

The Flint Township Democrat has been a fixture on national cable networks and played a prominent role during Wednesday’s closely watched congressional hearing on the lead exposure of Flint’s children. He also gained a national spotlight when he helped secure the release last month of Flint resident Amir Hekmati from an Iranian prison.

At the Flint hearing, Kildee was unrelenting in his criticism of the Snyder administration and accused officials of trying to “create some false equivalency of responsibility” with Flint officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The governor should write a check tomorrow for the $60 million that the mayor of Flint has asked for to replace the lead service lines,” Kildee said during Wednesday testimony. “He’s sitting on a billion-dollar surplus. He should ask for that money tomorrow. And then should commit to not just fix the infrastructure, but to make it right for these kids.”

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Snyder plans to unveil a longer-term Flint plan as part of next week’s state budget proposal, but Kildee has promoted several federal proposals of his own.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dan Kildee has been the man of the hour in Michigan,” said Susan Demas, owner and editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “ ... It’s certainly raised his profile, both nationally and statewide.”

Kildee said late last year he remained tempted to run for governor in 2018 but would be more likely to jump in if he could avoid a contested primary. He declined to say in a phone interview whether recent events have changed that calculus.

“Right now my focus is on what I need to do to make it right for Flint. Political decisions in the future don’t really affect what’s the focus right now,” Kildee told The Detroit News from Washington, D.C.

“We should be more focused on making sure this governor is doing his job than on who the next governor is going to be.”

Hekmati hostage saga

The first issue that drew Kildee into the news was Iran’s imprisonment of Hekmati, a former Marine who was jailed in August 2011 on vague spying charges when visiting relatives in the country. He has denied the accusations.

Kildee learned about Hekmati during his congressional run in 2012 and “took up the cause” when he assumed office in 2013. He met Hekmati for the first time in Germany after the Iranian-American was released along with three other Americans. The prisoner exchange saw the White House pardon four Iranians and commute the sentences of three others.

“It was a pretty amazing moment,” said Kildee, who traveled with Hekmati’s family to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Kildee and Hekmati’s family waged a years-long campaign for his release. He helped get nearly 100 members of Congress to pose with “Free Amir” signs, more than 100 colleagues signed his letter to the Obama administration and the House unanimously approved his resolution urging Hekmati’s release.

“We didn’t want him to be forgotten,” Kildee said. “We also wanted to make sure that Amir knew, to the extent he was getting information, that there were people fighting for him in order to keep him strong.”

Kildee said he discussed Hekmati’s case multiple times with Giulio Haas, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, and Mohammad Khazaee, the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.

“My role wasn’t to negotiate with the Iranians, but to reinforce the position of the United States and the position of my community, so it was clear to the Iranians that this was not just the Secretary of the State that they had to deal with, that Congress had a voice in this as well,” Kildee said.

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Flint water crisis

Kildee began complaining about the Flint drinking water crisis before the Snyder administration acknowledged there was a problem in mid-October and at least four months before the governor declared a state of emergency in early January.

Emails voluntarily released by Snyder show Kildee asked for a conference call as early as Sept. 25. The request didn’t resonate with the governor’s then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, who called Kildee a “press hound” who could try to “fan the narrative that the state is ducking responsibility.”

Muchmore, who recently returned to Lansing’s lobbying corps, said Kildee has had a good run with Hekmati’s return and Flint being in the national spotlight. But he stood by his earlier remarks.

“Well, he is a press hound,” Muchmore told The Detroit News. “He’s on a roll. He hasn’t passed up a chance to pound us around.”

Kildee contends it was national media attention that finally spurred action by the Snyder administration, and he argues the crisis has exposed shortcomings in the accountant governor’s political philosophy.

“When you measure decisions in quarterly reports and financial statements, you can do things that are really bad for people,” he said, “and I think that’s what this shows.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University water expert who discovered high levels of lead in Flint’s water, has said corrosion controls would have made the Flint River water safe to drink. He said a few state environmental officials “misled” Michigan leaders and tried to “cover up” proof of high lead levels.

Snyder and the state Legislature approved a $9.3 million Flint appropriation in October and a $28.5 million supplemental spending bill recently signed into law.

“I’m grateful for anything they’re doing, but it is woefully inadequate for the size of the problem that they created,” said Kildee, who is working to secure additional federal funding. “The reason I think there’s a federal role is because the federal government has the capacity to help.”

Kildee has urged the state to provide Flint residents with forgivable loans through the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund and received confirmation from the EPA those dollars could be used to replace lead service lines on private property. Last week, he joined Michigan’s Democratic senators in proposing $600 million in federal aid for Flint.

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Political future

Kildee holds a safe Democrat seat that was held for 36 years by his uncle, Dale Kildee, and now heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to protect vulnerable incumbents.

Kildee appears to relish his role in Congress, even though he is a minority member in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.

“Rep. Kildee has been in my office, and when I asked him (if he’d run for governor), he looked me straight in the eye and says he loves the job he has,” said T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic political consultant and founder of Vanguard Public Affairs. “He’s enormously popular in his district, and his recent work only cements him as a long-term congressman.”

But Kildee’s rising profile puts him at the top of what Bucholz considers a deep bench for Michigan Democrats in 2018. Other potential gubernatorial candidates include former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has insisted he will not run.

Republican consultant Tom Shields, president of the Marketing Resource Group, said the congressman’s recent media exposure hasn’t necessarily boosted his name recognition in other parts of Michigan.

“I don’t think he’s anywhere near a statewide name,” said Shields, who suggested the long-term political implications of the Flint water crisis may still rest on Snyder’s final three years in office.

Should he stay in Congress, Kildee would likely gain an eventual leadership position but it would be less powerful unless Democrats regain control of the House, Demas said.

“So I could see how the governor’s office could be a big draw,” she said.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.