Rick Snyder and the Flint Water Crisis
In 2010 businessman Rick Snyder launched onto the political scene with a well-timed ad during the Super Bowl. He seemed like a different kind of Republican in a primary field crowded with ideologues, a good match for the light blue-to-purple state. Snyder cleared the primary field and then won an overwhelming victory in a year that was good for Republicans nationwide. With his undeniable mandate and a renewed majority for the GOP in the State Legislature, Snyder assumed office with the mantle of a technocratic pragmatist and a hemorrhaging economy to rein in.
In the intervening five years, much has changed: Michigan, birthplace of the UAW, became a right-to-work state; an extreme anti-abortion bill was signed into law; Detroit became the largest American municipality to file for bankruptcy; voting rights were curtailed. John Oliver skewered an absurdly comical sex scandal between two Republican legislators.
Now the beleaguered city of Flint has strayed into national headlines, because the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead on Snyder’s watch. Children are suffering the deadly effects of lead poisoning in this largely poor and African-American city, at one time the hometown of General Motors but now another pockmark on the Rust Belt’s landscape, where people only live because they can’t leave.
How did we get here? Michigan does not have a history of political corruption. Its most famous politician is the most genial president of the last half-century, Gerald R. Ford. But the crisis in Flint — and the countless other scandals and melodramas that have preoccupied the Wolverine State for the last five years — did not happen in a vacuum.
The Michigan Legislature is one of only nine full time state legislatures in the United States. Over the last 20 years the State House has gone back and forth between a Democratic majority and a Republican one; the Senate has remained in Republican control the entire time. The 2010 elections, which saw the ascendency of Snyder, gave the Republicans a 15-seat majority in the House and supermajority in the Senate. The unified Republican government got to work quickly, controversially amending a law allowing municipal governments in fiscal crises to enter into state receivership.
Public Act 4 granted sweeping powers to emergency financial managers. If the state deemed a city government or a school district in a financial emergency, the governor’s office could appoint a manger to come in and have ultimate authority over the entity. These managers could dissolve elected governments until further notice.
Unsurprisingly, many of the communities put under the authority of emergency managers had large African-American populations: Benton Harbor, Pontiac, the Detroit Public Schools, and Flint. The law was unpopular with a public, skeptical about its more extreme provisions. Snyder’s team championed it as a necessary step in bringing Michigan’s financial house in order. The law was struck down by voter referendum the same night Barack Obama won Michigan’s 16 electoral votes, and Democrats gained four seats in the State House.
Before the next legislative session began, however, an undeterred majority in the Legislature passed the emergency manager law — again — with one key difference: the funding for the managers would be appropriated directly from the state budget, instead of from city coffers. The Michigan Constitution, not wanting state budget plans overturned by a tax-averse population, prohibits any law with an appropriation from being overturned by voter referenda. So the law was reinstated with this failsafe, and the state’s Republican Attorney General and Republican-dominated Supreme Court were unlikely to intervene.
The Flint water crisis itself has its genesis in a desire to save money. For years, the City of Flint had been purchasing water from Detroit, but costs were climbing and the city — overburdened with pensions promised in more prosperous decades — couldn’t afford it. So in 2013 the city joined a regional water system that would draw its water supply from Lake Huron.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department cut Flint off immediately, but the replacement, the Karegnondi Water Authority, wasn’t finished. Flint needed to get its water from somewhere, and it chose the nearby Flint River. The decision was approved of by the city council, but by 2013, the city was under control of an emergency manager, and all decisions were being made top-down.
Rick Snyder’s then-Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, says the decision to switch to the Flint River was okayed by the State Treasurer, Andy Dillon. Dillon, a Democrat who had served as Speaker of the State House in the two years prior to Snyder’s election, would soon be forced out of office by a contentious divorce. The switch from Detroit’s water to Lake Huron was celebrated by the city in 2014, with the mayor, Dayne Walling, toasting the city while drinking a glass.
Almost immediately, residents began to complain about the water. They said it smelled foul, it tasted funny, it left them with rashes. Residents complained, and they were rebuffed, first by the city, then by the state Department of Environmental Quality, which insisted the water was fine. It took until October 2015, well over a year after residents first started complaining, before the state admitted there was a problem.
Why did it take so long? Muchmore, the Chief of Staff, groused in an email to the governor about the “anti everything group” fixated on lead in the drinking water, laying the blame on both the City of Flint and the Department of Environmental Quality. This was not, however, out of the norm for the Snyder Administration, to respond to a crisis with a curt dismissal and to shift the blame elsewhere.
Ultimate culpability lies with the governor’s office. In March 2015, the Flint City Council voted 7–1 to “do all things necessary” to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s water. The emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, refused to sign off on the vote, calling it “incomprehensible.” In a statement on his decision, Ambrose insisted “Flint water is safe.”
Ambrose’s reasons for vetoing the decision were the cost: an estimated $12 million annually to get water from Detroit. Now the price tag for the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water is hovering over $1 billion, well beyond the cash-strapped city’s budget.
Ambrose, of course, was appointed to his position by Rick Snyder.
Rick Snyder’s approval ratings have hovered in the low-40s for the last six months. It’s no secret that the governor, once lauded by Politico as a successful example for Republicans across the country, flirted with a presidential run in early 2015. He decided against running in May 2015, but remained on the long-list as the bottom of a Republican presidential ticket.
Now any future political run for higher office would be — to be slightly crass — toxic. Snyder stands as the poster boy for the ill effects of governance obsessed with austerity and tax cuts at the expense of sound public policy and public safety.
For five years, the governor has clung to his moderate label while approving of extremist legislation from the hardline Republican Legislature. In 2012 and 2014, Democrats won more votes than Republicans but still stayed in the minority, thanks to a largely secret redistricting process overseen by the Republicans in the Legislature and tacitly approved of by Rick Snyder.
In an editorial excoriating Governor Snyder’s tenuous grasp on the trust of the people of Michigan, the Detroit Free Press’s Brian Dickerson said Snyder has “affix[ed] his signature to a steady succession of bills designed to conceal the identity and motives of the state’s biggest political donors and establish new obstacles for ordinary voters to participate.”
He is referring to a series of bills passed at the end of 2015, eliminating straight ticket voting in Michigan and expanding the role of secret donations in state elections. Snyder signed these bills into law while voicing some hesitation in his signing statements. But whatever the governor’s feelings, these bills are now state law.
This sort of blatant election rigging is sure to impact statewide elections in 2016 and beyond. Michigan skews Democratic at the federal level: it has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, and has only had two Republican Senators in the last fifty years. In the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans have vied for dominance over the last twenty years.
But politics is not just about federal elections, as the crisis in Flint illustrates: state-level elections matter, and the Republican Party of Michigan has a stranglehold on the electoral process, giving itself advantages and expanding its majorities through duplicitous means and using those majorities to further undermine the small-d democratic process.
In 2010 and in 2014, Governor Snyder campaigned on transparency in government. A favorite mantra of his is “relentless positive action.” His priorities once in office, however, have been a far cry from what he campaigned on. His successor will not be sworn in until January 2019; Rick Snyder has three years to recalibrate his administration and save his legacy. Unfortunately for Michigan, it’s unlikely that will happen.