Bankole: New Flint mayor won’t let Whitmer forget about city

Bankole Thompson

When she was running to become the 49th governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer repeatedly talked about the Flint water crisis, and even brought some families from Flint to speak at her victory night party at the Motor City Casino Hotel in downtown Detroit. 

Since her campaign Whitmer has talked far less frequently about Flint. Her actions regarding recovery for the city have not significantly matched her former rhetoric, and people are beginning to take notice. 

Famed TV judge and Detroiter Greg Mathis recently said he’s profoundly disappointed in Whitmer’s lukewarm attitude toward Flint. He said she failed in her promise to bring back bottled water distribution to Flint until the pipes are fixed. 

Tiffany Brown, the governor’s spokeswoman, quickly denied Mathis’ accusation, saying Whitmer has encouraged Nestle to continue to provide water in Flint.

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley was elected mayor of Flint on Tuesday.

But the election of state Rep. Sheldon Neeley on Tuesday as the new mayor of Flint could change the dynamics between the governor and a city.

Like Whitmer, Neeley understands optics. He's an effective communicator who knows how to message crisis to the broader community, and he has a grasp of the public policy issues that have long presented a challenge to the recovery of Flint.

Neeley, who was openly critical of Whitmer and her Republican opponent Bill Schuette for not holding a debate in Flint during the gubernatorial campaign, is going to be a hard negotiator on behalf of his city. In fact, he came on my radio show on 910 AM to level criticism against Whitmer and Schuette for skipping Flint as a debate venue, even as the two candidates blamed each other for not having a debate there. 

Whitmer won’t be able to dismiss Neeley’s frustration as political posturing because he brings a high degree of credibility to the crisis.

He was there from day one when the crisis started eating deep at the fabric of the city’s future like a cancer, after children as young as 4 were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water.

In fact, Neeley was the first to fire off a terse letter to Schuette asking the then-attorney general to come into Flint and investigate the origins of the lead water crisis.  Schuette declined until the cameras started rolling into the impoverished city. 

Neeley, who has a take-no-prisoner’s attitude, is bound to force Whitmer’s hand on Flint to ensure promises that the governor made will be met during her tenure. Whitmer’s original budget earmarked some funding for Flint for next year, but bottled water distribution remains a significant issue for residents, which sparked recent criticism of Whitmer who talked about continuing the distribution in 2018, months after the state under former Gov. Rick Snyder stopped distribution. 

“I look forward to having a different type of dialogue with the governor as the mayor of Flint that would help the recovery of this community,” Neeley told me on Tuesday night after his victory. “Right now, there are still issues with our quality of water and the cost of water. I want to make sure some of the impediments to the recovery would not be in place anymore.”

Neeley said he wants to do an audit to know the entire cost of the recovery so that residents can understand where they are.

“What we are going to need is some financial help from the state and some guidance in specialized areas. We need the state fiscal agency to come in and help us recover,” Neeley said. “And we are going to need some dollars from the state to help subsidize that.” 

Neeley said his knowledge as a lawmaker in Lansing is a plus for his new assignment.

“I have a great understanding of how our laws work,” Neeley said. “I have a good working relationship with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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