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Gov on Flint crisis: ‘It will always be terrible’

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

It’s clear Gov. Rick Snyder has thought a lot about this question: What would you have done differently in your response to the Flint water crisis?

“I would have called out the National Guard on Oct. 1,” the governor told me in an interview Thursday.

This is certainly a recognition that his public response lacked the urgency the situation required.

The full extent of the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water was not apparent to him until later last fall, leading him to delay activating the National Guard and other action until this month, rather than three months ago.

It has called Snyder’s reputation into question. Given this slow response, and the gross mishandling by numerous state and federal department employees, Michigan’s governor has become one of the most hated men in America.

And he’s reminded of the crisis every time he turns on the tap for a drink of water.

“You think about the mess,” Snyder says quietly.

The governor, who takes pride in being a proactive, strong leader, has found himself in a position he’s not familiar with: dealing with incompetence in his government.

“It’s awful. It’s been really hard,” he says. “That’s why I ran for governor. To come on and take on these challenges. We were broken. There were so many things messed up. I’ve had a lot of major accomplishments — things like Detroit. A lot of people didn’t believe it could be solved in many respects, but I always believed it could.”

Just a year ago, Snyder was starting his second term and enjoying the glow of Detroit’s emergence from the largest municipal bankruptcy. He was even mulling a presidential run, holding up his success in Michigan to groups around the country.

Snyder says his goals when he first took office included reinventing state government and changing the culture. Clearly, there were deeper problems in some of these agencies — such as the state Department of Environmental Quality — that hadn’t yet been addressed, which resulted in unsafe water for Flint residents.

“These people I work for and care for got hurt,” Snyder says. “And the key catalysts were people who work for me and I’m responsible for them. You can’t feel good about that. You don’t sleep well.”

The governor has been subject to intense scrutiny and vilification. Some activists and celebrities have gone as far as to call for Snyder’s arrest and even execution. That’s taken a toll on him and his family. What’s kept him going is thinking about the people of Flint.

“Nothing is as bad as what the people of Flint face themselves, having to deal with bottled water or filters or concerns about lead levels,” he says. “I mean they are the ones who are suffering the most. How I’m suffering through this is nothing in relationship to what they are going through.”

Snyder says he has spent time with his wife, Sue, and his kids, walking them through the steps of what happened — because they’ve had questions, too.

“It was the precursor to the State of the State,” he says. “I did the state of the household.”

I’ve had many interviews with the governor over the years, and he’s almost impossible to get off his talking points. This conversation was different. He was unguarded, and clearly shaken by what’s happened in Flint. He’s angry, too.

Snyder gets that the buck stops with him, and he has taken responsibility for the water crisis and the botched response. But he also thought he could trust the experts who had worked for years in the health and environmental departments.

“It’s very frustrating,” he says. “The people did give wrong information. It wasn’t just one person. It just makes you mad.”

The governor still has a state to run, however, and must harness that frustration.

“I try not to over-emotionalize things,” Snyder says. “I just want people to know I’m the captain of the ship, and the captain of the ship has to remain calm in the storm, right? I’ve been through some pretty good storms. But this is the kind of storm you can’t not get mad about or angry about in some fashion.”

Looking to the future, Snyder says he tries to put the Flint crisis in a different context.

“It’s a terrible thing and it will always be terrible,” he says. “But hopefully it starts being put in a better perspective — not for my career opportunities but just for sleeping at night. I want to fix the problem.”