GOP presidential race wades into Flint crisis

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

As Republican presidential candidates begin to descend on the state more frequently in the run-up to Michigan’s March 8 primary, political observers expect Flint’s lead exposure crisis to be on voters’ minds.

And it may be raised by Fox News moderators during the Thursday debate at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.

“The whole Flint thing is a dynamic that hasn’t existed in other states,” said Katie Packer, a Virginia-based Republican political consultant and Michigan native. “When they come to Michigan, they’re going to have to be prepared to address it.”

Even though Flint is a Democratic Party stronghold, Packer said Republican candidates need to “show some sympathy” because the state considers all of Flint’s nearly 9,000 children have been exposed to lead in the water that can hurt their health and brain development for life.

“How you treat people who are most in need is a reflection of who you are, and I think voters in Grand Rapids are concerned about what’s happened to those kids,” said Packer, who is running a super political action committee opposed to GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have talked about Flint at length on the campaign trail, mostly railing against the actions and perceived inaction of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

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Snyder, who is not endorsing a GOP presidential candidate, said he expects fellow Republicans to talk about the EPA’s role in Flint’s lead contamination, as Kasich did at an East Lansing town hall two weeks ago.

“They had a lot of role in all of this and I haven’t really seen them taking a lot of responsibility,” Snyder said about the EPA in a recent interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board.

Since Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5, Republican presidential candidates have been asked about the crisis on the campaign trail in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere.

Here’s what they’ve had to say:

Donald Trump: During a Jan. 19 campaign stop in Winterset, Iowa, Trump made brief remarks about the crisis in Flint. “Well, it’s a shame what’s happening,” he told reporters, according to NBC News.

“A thing like that shouldn’t happen but, again, I don’t want to comment on that,” Trump said. “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.”

Ted Cruz: The U.S. senator from Texas called Flint’s lead-tainted water “an absolute travesty” during a Jan. 19 campaign stop in New Hampshire.

“It is a failure at every level of government,” Cruz told reporters, according to NBC News. “It is a failure of the city officials, it is a failure of the county officials, it is a failure of the state officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed.”

Marco Rubio: On Jan. 18, a Detroit News reporter asked Rubio about the Flint water crisis on the campaign trail in Coralville, Iowa. “That’s not an issue that, right now, we’ve been focused on,” Rubio said. “It’s just not an issue that we’ve quite frankly been fully briefed or apprised of, in terms of the role the governor’s played, the state has played on these sorts of issues.”

The next day, reporters in Minnesota asked Rubio about Flint and the Florida senator said he still had not been briefed on the subject.

Two days later, Rubio called the lead contamination of Flint’s water system “tragic.”

“There was a significant government breakdown in terms of when they switched the power — the water source to a lake that was known to be polluted and unfortunately now we have people that are facing this terrible situation with potential lead poisoning and all sorts of things,” Rubio told reporters, according to the Washington Post. “It’s a very — a systemic and ugly breakdown at the local and state level. The governor has acknowledged that.”

Rubio said the crisis requires “accountability” by those in charge of Flint’s water switch.

“We’ll have to look and see how those decisions were made, and people will have to be held accountable for that, because it’s having real human repercussions,” Rubio said. “And what we’ll figure out now moving forward is what can the federal government’s role be in assisting people, for example children in particular, that might have been exposed to lead.”

John Kasich: The Ohio governor was asked how he would have dealt with Flint’s drinking water contamination during the televised Jan. 28 GOP presidential debate in Des Moines.

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

The next day in Iowa, Kasich faced more questions about Flint’s water problems because elevated levels of lead had been founds months ago in the drinking water of the 4,300-person town of Sebring, Ohio, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Kasich said Flint’s problems were more comparable to the toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie that compromised Toledo’s water supply for nearly three days in August 2014.

“You’re gonna have things like this happen,” Kasich told reporters on Jan. 29. “They’re happening all over the country now because of the old infrastructure. We deal with it, and we deal with it effectively.”

On Feb. 15, Kasich told a crowd at Michigan State University that Flint’s crisis should compel the federal government to re-examine water regulations and reporting requirements when the water has been compromised.

“What I will say is I think (Gov. Rick) Snyder’s probably working day and night, and probably not even sleeping, trying to get on top of the whole thing and fix it, but it is a challenge,” Kasich said.

Ben Carson: The Detroit native and retired neurosurgeon made extensive comments about Flint’s water crisis during an interview with Black Entertainment Television from Drake University in Des Moines that was published on Jan. 25, a week before the Iowa caucuses.

“When they switched over from the Detroit water supply to the Flint water supply, people immediately started complaining,” Carson said on the BET program. “They said, ‘This water is dirty, it smells bad. It tastes bad,’ and yet nobody did anything about it. I think that is abominable.”

Carson, the only African-American candidate in the GOP field, also questioned whether the water problems dating to April 2014 in an impoverished city like Flint would have been allowed to go on for so long “in an upper-class black neighborhood.”

Carson faulted local and state government officials for not taking action sooner. “It should have been immediately investigated. They should have been just as concerned if their children were drinking that water,” Carson said. “So there’s a lot of blame to go around there.”

Instead of a “wholesale” firing, Carson said the government workers who allowed Flint’s water to go untreated for corrosion control should be kept in place to fix the problem.

“We’ll get it under control more quickly by having these people who feel guilty already getting involved in it,” Carson said. “Then once we get the problem solved, I think there should be some real accountability. And I think it should start at the top with the Environmental Protection Agency and come all the way down to the local level.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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