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Flint — The effort to find pipes that leach toxic metals into Flint’s drinking water is a painstaking task, one that normally isn’t led by a former community banker.

But on a recent Friday afternoon, the man wearing a black jacket over his khakis, collared shirt and gray-and-blue argyle sweater is asking homeowners for permission to enter their houses. He brings in a union plumber, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee and a state police trooper.

They are searching the basement for the water pipe coming out of the floor. The plumber determines what kind of metal it is, usually by scratching a knife across the surface.

At seven of the 12 houses where the owners are present, the man emerges from the house and yells the finding to another DEQ employee with an iPad used to track the findings. At this particular postwar bungalow, they find what they are searching for.

“It’s lead,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley says as he comes out through a side door and waves in the DEQ worker to speak with the homeowner about getting her water tested.

Calley has spent three days since mid-February on these door-to-door missions, according to the Governor’s Office, greeting homeowners and explaining why the state is figuring out which homes have lead water service pipes so they eventually can be removed.

The 39-year-old Republican from Portland has become the public face of state government on the streets of Democrat-dominated Flint, where Gov. Rick Snyder’s close confidante Richard Baird is the administration’s main contact but prefers to operate more behind the scenes.

The nation’s youngest lieutenant governor spent his first five years in office working on developmental disability and mental health issues, in part because he has a daughter with autism. He also advocated for companies to employ the handicapped and chaired a task force on prescription drug and opioid abuse.

Calley’s efforts to improve the Snyder’s administration’s image in Flint could help him politically if he were to run for governor in 2018, said Dave Doyle, a Republican consultant and former state GOP chairman.

“If things in 2018 are terrible in Flint and people continue to blame the Snyder administration, that hurts Brian Calley,” Doyle said. “... My guess is he’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Before the crisis, Calley was widely viewed as a likely GOP contender to succeed Snyder.

But the lieutenant governor is steering clear of any discussion about the 2018 election cycle for fear it could “constrain the range” of issues he can be involved in, particularly in Flint, which is home to a potential Democratic gubernatorial contender, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee.

“I’m just not ready to get into the 2018 cycle yet, so I don’t really see any value in pushing those doors open before the next election,” Calley told The News. “After this presidential cycle, I’ll get serious about what makes sense for the future.”

‘I’m the No. 2 guy’

Even though he hails from more than 70 miles from the crisis, Calley has immersed himself in Flint’s problems — from the water crisis to economic development and urban renewal initiatives. After the state of emergency was declared in early January, he helped deliver water in the city.

During a recent “lead hunting” excursion through Flint’s west side, Calley encountered residents who were frustrated by how long it is taking to resolve a state of emergency Snyder declared four months ago.

“It’s going to get replaced,” Calley assured a Flint man at another home where a lead service line was found.

Al Johnson, the homeowner, told the lieutenant governor the new pipeline couldn’t come soon enough. He wanted to sue the city for the harm the water has inflicted on his family.

“I don’t drink that water. I hate to bathe in it,” Johnson told Calley. “I don’t event cook with it.”

Johnson said his wife has gotten red bumps and rashes since Flint started using Flint River water in April 2014, and they have continued since October’s switch back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system.

The man didn’t seem to know who Calley was as he began criticizing Snyder’s Flint emergency managers, who decided to use river water, without corrosion control chemicals that caused lead to leach from old pipes and exposed the city’s 100,000 residents to a health hazard.

“I’m the lieutenant governor. I’m the No. 2 guy,” he told Johnson. “I think there’s probably a lot of blame to go around. I’m just trying to get it fixed.”

Insisting on a Flint role

Calley, a banker by trade, joined Snyder’s winning gubernatorial ticket in 2010. He had won two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives and two terms on the Ionia County Commission.

But his latest door-to-door campaign involves asking Flint residents if he can see their pipes, while filming weekly YouTube videos explaining how to remove lead particles from faucet aerators and get water tested, and how Flint lacks maps showing where lead water lines are buried.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first got into it. It’s safe to say I wouldn’t have expected this,” Calley said during a daylong tour through Flint.

Calley decided to shift his focus in mid-January to Flint. Snyder did not dispatch Calley to the city last fall when DEQ officials admitted they erred in the treatment of Flint’s water, but he insisted on a role, spending three days each week in the Flint.

“It wasn’t something really that the governor asked me to do,” Calley said. “I wanted to be able to look back on my time in office and know that in a crisis as big as this one that I did every single thing that I could do.”

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint said the lieutenant governor’s presence in his hometown has been “definitely helpful” to the recovery efforts.

“Anybody who wants to be helpful to Flint, I’ll accept it,” Ananich said.

Political relations

As Calley has waded into Flint’s issues, he has been forced to navigate local politics, personality differences and turf wars.

“I’ve got to up my Flint IQ in order to effective,” he said.

Calley also has tried to extinguish political fires, including one he started.

Among the thousands of pages of Flint-related emails the Snyder administration released this winter was one Calley sent the governor’s chief of staff ripping state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat.

Calley was responding to public comments Neeley made about the emergency managers and their use of Flint River water. “He is not productive, and he is not going to be productive,” Calley wrote in a Jan. 3 missive, finding the legislator’s comments disingenuous.

Neeley later told reporters he felt disrespected by the lieutenant governor’s email rant. On the day The News published an article about the email, Calley called Neeley during his car ride back to Lansing to try to smooth things over with the freshman lawmaker.

“I’m willing to work with him to bring about some relief for the residents of the city of Flint,” Neeley said after the call.

But the former Flint City Council member said his constituents remain skeptical about Calley’s presence more than six months after the city’s water was declared unsafe to drink without a faucet filter.

“A lot of people in Flint believe the time he’s spending here is a photo op for the administration instead of going in a positive decision,” he said.

Calley said he has been trying to help state officials work through the “growing pains” of working with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and her team. The tensions became public a month ago when Flint’s attorneys filed a court notice that reserves the city’s right to sue the state for the lead-tainted water.

“Whenever you’re working with new people, there’s a process of learning how to work together, how to communicate,” Calley said.

“We are working through that,” he added.

‘Cornered the market’

Calley started a recent Friday in Flint meeting with organizers of the HealthPlus Crim Festival of Races, an annual series of citywide races held over the fourth weekend in August.

Calley, an ardent runner, competed in the Crim race last August. He said he believes this year’s Aug. 25-27 festivities, marking the Crim race’s 40th anniversary, could be a good time for the community to come together for a day of celebration after a year of turmoil.

So Calley arranged for the state police to handle traffic coordination, saving money for the city’s Police Department, and raised $12,500 from private donors to pay for $25 of the $45 entry fee for 500 state employees to participate in this year’s races.

“I want them to be part of something positive here,” he said.

After the meeting, Calley walked through downtown Flint toward the waterfront and talked about his frequent participation in 5K races across the state. In that moment, he made a fleeting reference to a likely gubernatorial rival.

“I’ve never run into Bill Schuette at a 5K,” Calley quipped about the Republican attorney general. “I’ve kind of cornered the market there.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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