Bankole: Flint raises stakes in race for governor

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Two years after Gov. Rick Snyder issued a full-blown apology for presiding over one of the biggest public health disasters in the state, in which roughly 10,000 kids in Flint were exposed to lead in their drinking water for 18 months, the city is still waiting for a clean bill of health. A majority of the lead pipes have not been replaced and the city’s children are still being tested for lead.

Even after Snyder vowed a full recovery, the question of reconstruction now falls on to the next governor, which makes Flint an important factor in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Snyder’s recent decision to end free bottled water to Flint because lead levels in the water have shown signs of improvement and have not exceeded federal limits further raises the stakes in the election regarding the crisis in Flint.

“We are disappointed with the governor’s decision because the people of Flint have still not recovered and not all of the lead pipes have been replaced,” said the Rev. Allen Overton, spokesman for the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the Flint religious group that has been in the forefront demanding state recovery. “The candidates running for governor need to show us a plan for Flint. They need to tell us how they will help bring jobs to Flint to help families in this city. The people of Flint have been suffering for far too long.”

Overton’s message is being heard by both Republican and Democratic candidates already positioning themselves to be an advocate for a city that became a global public health scandal.

Several of the candidates interviewed vowed to make Flint a top priority should they get elected.

“There’s no reason that the state that’s home to 21 percent of the earth’s fresh water should have a community full of people who can’t bathe their children or give them a glass of water at the dinner table. It’s time to fix the damn pipes,” said Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate who has received the most endorsement in the race. “Flint will be a top priority during the first 100 days of my administration. I am committed to fully repairing the damage in Flint and rebuilding the trust in the community.”

Whitmer also wants the Republican administration in Lansing to own up to what happened in Flint and reverse the recent decision to halt free bottled water.

“We need to get our priorities straight,” Whitmer said. “Gov. Snyder, Lt. Gov. (Brian) Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette need to do what’s right for the people of Flint by providing free bottled water to anyone who needs it until every lead pipe is replaced and the community has the trust and confidence that it’s drinking water that is safe and clean. If Lansing won’t step up, we’ll get it done when I’m governor.”

Schuette, who is regarded as the GOP’s likely nominee, fired back.

“There are many candidates willing to play politics with peoples lives in Flint, as if they are just chess pieces to be moved out,” Schuette said. “I’ve seen up close as I do my job and what I see is a complete lack of trust by families in their government.”

Schuette, who is leading a criminal and civil probe into the water crisis, said, “Flint and other struggling Michigan cities will be high on my list of priorities because my singular goal is to make Michigan a true economic growth state and we cannot accomplish that if our major population centers like Flint are ready for growth.”

Democratic candidate Shri Thanedar wants a faster recovery.

“I will double down on efforts to replace every single damaged water pipe across the city. The timetable for replacement must be improved drastically,” he said.

The continued health of Flint’s kids will remain a high priority of his administration, Thanedar says.

Calley, who is challenging Schuette for the GOP nomination, agrees with Snyder on ending bottled water, according to campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf.

“The Flint water system is the most extensively tested public water system in America. (Calley) believes with the dramatic improvements in water quality that transitioning from bottled water is now appropriate,” Schrimpf said. “Lt. Gov. Calley is 100 percent invested in Flint’s recovery. He moved his office to Flint and worked there so much during the water crisis that he had to file a Flint city income tax return in 2016.”

Democratic candidate Abdul El-Sayed said the recovery of Flint will require an environmental health vision.

“I will create a Clean Water Infrastructure Bank that would use public and private money to fund full infrastructure replacement,” El-Sayed said. “I will enforce higher water quality standards, lowering the action level to 5 parts per billion.

“Coupled with a meaningful, consistent investment to fix Flint’s public schools and increase funding for mental health services, we will ensure that Flint residents have the services they need to cope with this crisis in the long term.”

In 2016, Snyder in his State of the State address said to the people of Flint, “I’m sorry and I will fix it. You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”

Since then, Flint residents have been waiting for the state to make good on the promises.

“We have been waiting. People are tired and have lost faith in government,” Overton, spokesman for the pastors’ group, said.

Whitmer added, “Every parent should be able to turn on the tap and know the water they’re giving their children is safe to drink.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.