Whitmer blasted for planned Virginia campaign stop after Benton Harbor directive

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is scheduled to campaign in Virginia Saturday, nine days after issuing a directive her administration said would bring an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the water crisis in Benton Harbor.

UPDATE: Gov. Whitmer skips Virginia campaign event after GOP criticism

Republicans fumed Friday afternoon after a social media post revealed the Democratic governor would be knocking on doors in Virginia for candidates there ahead of that state's Nov. 2 election. But Whitmer's office emphasized that she had been in neighboring Washington, D.C., advocating for the replacement of lead service lines.

"Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water, and that’s why Gov. Whitmer has mounted a whole-of-government response," spokesman Bobby Leddy said. "That includes ensuring that residents have immediate access to free bottled water, leveraging available state resources and working across the aisle to secure necessary funding to replace lead service lines and setting an aggressive timeline to replace all lead pipes in the city."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the Detroit Branch NAACP’s 66th Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner at TCF Center in Detroit.

Whitmer was scheduled "to knock doors" in Rosslyn, Virginia, and talk to voters on Saturday, according to an event announcement shared by the Arlington Democrats on social media.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, is in a competitive race with Republican Glenn Youngkin to be the state's next governor.

The Republican Party and others blasted Whitmer on Friday for traveling to Virginia amid concerns over the drinking water in Benton Harbor, a southwest Michigan city of 9,615 residents.

"Gretchen Whitmer will put out-of-state politicians before Michiganders in crisis,” said Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. “It’s remarkable that she has time to campaign but not answer any questions about why three years later people in Benton Harbor and other places across Michigan don’t have access to clean water.” 

On Oct. 6, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced the availability of bottled water was being expanded in Benton Harbor "out of an abundance of caution." The press release encouraged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

Eight days later, Whitmer signed an executive directive implementing what her office called an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to the situation in Benton Harbor. The governor set a goal of replacing 100% of the lead service lines in the city within 18 months.

Elevated lead levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Much of the city's water distribution system is about 100 years old. On Sept. 9, a group of organizations filed an emergency petition with the Environmental Protection Agency on Benton Harbor's water. Among other actions, the filing asked the EPA to provide an immediate source of safe drinking water in schools and child care facilities in the city.

Whitmer's office revealed Friday afternoon that the governor had been in Washington, D.C., for "high-level conversations with key decision-makers" on Michigan's "priorities."

All lead service lines in every community need to be replace, Whitmer said in a statement on the discussions.

"This week, I had an opportunity to meet with national leaders to advance Michigan’s priorities," Whitmer said. "Our conversations centered on growing the economy, creating good-paying jobs, and building up our roads, bridges, and water infrastructure.

"We drilled down on two issues that are critical to Michigan’s families, communities, and small businesses right now: lead service lines and the chip crisis impacting our auto industry."

But Tori Sachs, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, said Whitmer should be in Benton Harbor "fixing the lead water crisis, not campaigning" in Virginia. 

"Whitmer's actions show that politics is always everything for her," Sachs said.

During an appearance on WKAR's "Off the Record" on Friday, the Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, was critical of the Whitmer administration's handling of the water crisis.

He would like to see governor go door to door handing out bottled water in the city in the next week, he said.