This column appeared in Dome Magazine.
Gov. Snyder has lost the people of Flint, and there’s no getting them back.
He’s pointedly avoided public events in the city since acknowledging the water crisis roughly eight months ago, choosing instead to hold tightly controlled news conferences.
If Snyder was hoping Flint residents’ anger would dissipate with time, he was proved dead wrong last week during President Obama’s visit.
The governor did what he should have done back in September 2015. He apologized to the people of Flint –– in Flint.
“You didn’t create this problem ––” Snyder started to tell the crowd of 1,000 at Northwestern High School.
But students cut him off, shouting, “You did!”
No one in the gym heard the second part of Snyder’s sentence: “Government failed you.”
It was all too little, too late. Snyder didn’t bother speaking much longer. No one was listening.
When Obama took the stage to cheers and applause, he acknowledged the governor, as he should have. But the crowd booed again and the president threw him a lifeline, asking people not to.
Obama then announced Democratic officials in attendance: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and U.S. Reps. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak), John Conyers (D-Detroit), Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield). None of them were jeered.
And there you have it –– the credibility gap on the Flint water crisis in action.
Republicans, led by Michigan GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, have valiantly tried to pin the issue on the Environmental Protection Agency, and thus Obama.
Of course, the facts say otherwise. The EPA failed, for sure, but the Flint water crisis was a state-created problem. Even the governor’s special task force found in its 116-page report that state-appointed emergency managers made the crucial decision to switch to the corrosive Flint River. The move was made to save money, which led to lead and legionella poisoning.
While Snyder and Republicans have been spinning and obfuscating about what they knew, Democrats like Kildee and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) have kept their doors open to Flint residents. And they’ve pushed for answers and aid.
Even Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to Flint, which prompted a round of “Democrats are politicizing the crisis” stories fed by Republicans.
But while that criticism had cachet with a cynical press corps, few people in Flint cared. They just wanted help. They just wanted people to listen. And if politicians had their own agenda, well, that’s what politicians do.
It’s not hard to see why Obama is more trusted, even though he certainly could have come to Flint sooner. From the early days of his presidency, he was mercilessly mocked by conservatives for stressing the value of empathy and its role in public service.
But people in that gym believed that the president cares. They clearly don’t think that of our CPA governor, who’s chosen balance sheets over people, time and time again.
Snyder’s allies fervently believe he’s gotten a raw deal and is being scapegoated. And partisans will always think that.
But consider how Snyder handled the president’s visit. It was a public relations disaster for the governor, from start to finish. And he’s had eight months to come up with a decent strategy. Although Snyder has cycled through key staff and high-priced PR firms, he’s still blowing it.
Last month, Snyder pledged to drink Flint water for 30 days to prove it was safe. A few days into the stunt, he announced he was heading to Europe on a trade mission and suspending his water pledge. What a fantastic PR move: The governor ditches Flint water for Perrier.
Then Obama announced he would be coming to Flint, crediting a heartfelt letter from 8-year-old Mari Copley, known as “Little Miss Flint” (because that’s how you do a PR stunt right).
Snyder was overseas and was like, “Oh, man, I’m really busy right now. Don’t think I can make it.”
When that went over like a lead balloon, the governor arrogantly demanded a meeting with the president in Flint –– as if the protocol is that governors get to call the shots with presidents. And Snyder went even further, challenging Obama to drink Flint water to deflect from his failures.
Of course, Obama has had seven years of dealing with petulant Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting, “You lie!” in the middle of his first State of the Union. So the president indulged Snyder on both counts and the governor said he’d come to the public event.
Perhaps Snyder’s media consultants were high-fiving one another over their apparent PR coup.
But when Snyder walked on stage, nothing could save him from the raw anger of the people of Flint. The president showed an incredible amount of empathy that he would even try after Snyder’s crass one-upmanship.
And therein lies the difference between the two men.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.