Finley: Flint water crisis could help Kildee in ’18

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Tragedy often spawns political opportunity, and the Flint water crisis is no different.

With the jockeying well underway for Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial race, the question of whether the disaster in Flint will have legs in the campaign is already being kicked around.

“The election is still a long way off, and that helps,” says Paul Welday, a Republican political strategist. “If managed effectively from here on out, the impact will be minimized. But these are the kinds of things that can ooze through your fingers and be very damaging.”

Nolan Finley

Republicans obviously are the ones at risk of being damaged. Decisions that precipitated lead entering Flint’s public water system — and the bloodstreams of its children — were made while Flint was under an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Bungling by Snyder’s departments of Environmental Quality and Health delayed the state’s response, and has put the administration in a very harsh national spotlight.

If the fallout lingers into the official start of the campaign, it could hurt candidates associated with the administration, notably Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and with Lansing’s Republican leadership, notably Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Who it helps also is obvious: Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area.

Kildee was already considering a run for governor before the crisis developed. And he’s been all over it, giving national interviews, leading the charge for federal aid and at every opportunity turning the blame toward the Republican administration. It was Kildee who first called for a federal investigation into how the crisis was handled.

Even without the water platform, Kildee was a strong contender for the Democratic nomination. The UAW likes him, and his short time in Congress boosts his resume without marking him with the Washington taint.

What he didn’t have was much of a statewide presence. The water scandal is taking care of that. Kildee has appeared often on national news shows and is almost daily quoted in the statewide news media.

Odds are Kildee will emerge as the hero of this debacle, and that’s not a bad jumping off spot for a gubernatorial bid. His interest lies in keeping the issue alive.

“This is tailor-made for Kildee,” Welday says. “Now he has a horse he can whip as long as it can take a beating.”

And while the impact of the contaminated water is fairly local to Flint, the anxiety and anger is reaching well beyond Genesee County, thanks to the sudden interest of the national media and Hillary Clinton’s embrace of it as a campaign issue.

Shorter term, Flint could play a role in the 2016 state House elections. Republicans already face a fierce fight to hang onto their House majority, and if there’s guilt by association, it could go badly for the GOP in November.

Snyder won’t face Michigan voters again, but if he has hopes for a cabinet spot in a new administration, Flint could kill them.

Elections can turn on the most unexpected influences. It’s way early, and Flint’s water could easily be forgotten by the time 2018, or even next fall, gets here. Or it could just as easily make a big splash on Election Day.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.