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Ohio Gov. John Kasich was asked at Thursday’s Republican presidential debate how he would have handled the situation in Flint, where the drinking water has been contaminated with lead.

Kasich said he was unfamiliar with the details of how Gov. Rick Snyder has handled the situation, but “every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that.”

But he misstated one of the developments in the controversy that has consumed the leader of a neighboring state when he said people in Michigan “have been fired; people who are being held accountable.” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman resigned in late December, and two unnamed DEQ officials have been suspended.

Kasich also indicated it is important to listen to constituents when they complain — something Flint residents have said the Snyder administration didn’t do.

When “people at home are saying they’ve got a problem, listen to them. Because most of the time, they’re absolutely correct,” he said.

The former U.S. House Budget Committee chairman also stressed that public officials need to have an attitude of “servitude” toward their constituents. “We serve you,” he said.

Snyder’s administration conceded in October that its environmental officials misread testing results and that there were elevated levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. With Snyder’s help, Flint switched from corrosive Flint River water back to the Detroit water system while a regional pipeline is built to Lake Huron.

On Jan. 5, the governor declared a state of emergency.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush issued the strongest defense of Snyder’s response to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis, and said last Sunday the focus should be on fixing the city’s drinking water system “instead of blaming people.”

Snyder has “taken responsibility. And I admire that,” Bush said on ABC’s “This Week” political talk show last Sunday. “He’s not saying that it’s someone else’s fault. He's rolling up his sleeves and trying to — trying to deal with this.”

Other GOP rivals have expressed sympathy for the residents of Flint.

“It’s a shame what’s happening in Flint, Michigan,” GOP front-runner Donald Trump told reporters in Winterset, Iowa, in brief remarks about the crisis, according to Reuters. “A thing like that shouldn’t happen. ... They’ve got a very difficult problem, and I know the governor’s got a very difficult time going. But you know, I shouldn’t be commenting on Flint.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters in New Hampshire a week and a half ago that Flint’s lead-tainted water is “a failure at every level of government.” Last week, Cruz’s Michigan campaign volunteers donated bottled water to pregnancy resource centers in Flint.

In Iowa, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, told a Detroit News reporter he had not been briefed on Flint’s water problems that have been in the national news since Snyder declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5 and declined to comment. After getting briefed on the issue, Rubio told reporters in Manchester, N.H., last week that the lead poisoning of Flint residents was the result of “a systemic and ugly breakdown at the local and state level,” NBC News reported.

By contrast, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has railed against Snyder’s response to the crisis for the past two weeks and her chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has called for Snyder to resign over what he called “one of the worst public health crises in the modern history of this country.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

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