Bankole: In Flint, Schuette building his case

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

All of a sudden, a masterfully produced ad appears on the TV screen succinctly retelling the story of the Flint lead-poison water crisis, and you see hard-to-believe images of corrosive pipes and devastated mothers whose babies’ health had been adversely affected.

Then comes a voice in the background introducing Bill Schuette, the Republican state attorney general, as the man who went to legal war for Flint’s roughly 10,000 children who were afflicted by the man-made disaster in a heavily Democratic city and subjected to 18 months of exposure to lead contaminated water.

Such an emotive visual projection of empathy and responsiveness will undoubtedly give Schuette an upper hand when he eventually announces his run for governor.

It will be hard to dismiss such a narrative even with a formidable Democratic candidate because Schuette is pragmatically owning the Flint story now.

The proof is his filing of high profile charges last week against Nick Lyon, the head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and four others, for involuntary manslaughter in the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee County believed to be connected to the water crisis that already had claimed a dozen lives and made several people sick.

The move surprisingly comes after Schuette’s flat rejection of a request by state Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, to investigate the matter when the troubles started brewing. Schuette would later get involved when it became a full-blown national issue. Despite that delay, Schuette — and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint — now appear to be the few remaining officials demanding accountability.

The others moved on when the cameras left, which perhaps explains why you don’t hear Flint discussed in the state Legislature anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. Those responsible for the massive failure of government in Flint — at the local and highest levels of state government — should be held accountable because nothing will reverse the kind of “man’s inhumanity to man” that was perpetrated there.

Children have suffered. Parents are wondering about the future of their children. Only time will tell if the lead poisoning will further damage or forestall their intellectual growth.

That is why what Schuette is doing may readily appear to be the right thing.

But viewed through a political lens, the charges offer another vision: A man getting ready to run for governor is adding significant chapters to his political biography; chapters that suggest he is fighting for the people.

Whether the charges hold up in a court of law or not, they could appear to benefit the AG when he begins his nascent gubernatorial campaign.

And since the crisis happened on Gov. Rick Snyder’s watch, Schuette, who has been at odds with his fellow Republican, can say he was willing to go beyond partisan loyalty and hold fellow public officials accountable.

Schuette has not ruled out charging Snyder himself. By all calculations, however, doing so would split the Republican Party he would need in a gubernatorial campaign.

So, whether Schuette will charge the governor is a matter of political conjecture at this point.

Like Schuette or not, history will cast him as standing on the right side of Flint.

“I give him credit. He didn’t have to make these moves. Certainly it is not going to hurt him to say he held some folks accountable. That does get some attention here,” said state Rep. Woodrow Stanley, a former Flint mayor.

“Whether or not that gets him votes in the governor’s race is a different conversation. But I can guarantee you that there are folks here who will listen to him. I think we are all better served when there is some competition.”

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.