Why We Need People Like the Flint Whistleblower To Get Political
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a bona fide hero.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that without her unflagging advocacy for her patients and the people of Flint, we could still be in the throes of deadly denial about the water crisis.
Many others sounded the alarm, from residents to pastors to politicians like U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), a likely 2018 candidate for governor.
But elected officials’ motives are always viewed with suspicion by the media and public. The default assumption nowadays is that politicians are always looking out for their career first and the people they serve second. Quite a few self-serving politicians — say, a president who can draw money from his myriad businesses at any point without disclosing it to the public — have certainly fed this stereotype.
So it’s not really a surprise that we’re much more comfortable with non-political figures, particularly Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech Professor Mark Edwards, serving as the proverbial “white hats” in this wretched story.
But when you have a public health crisis of this magnitude, you can’t avoid politics for long. After all, the state, and to a lesser degree, the federal governments are the reason why people were poisoned, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s own task force. And the government ultimately has the responsibility to help those harmed and make damned sure this never happens again.
Last year, both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, spent a lot of time in Flint before Michigan’s March primary. They even agreed to a last-minute presidential debate in the city.
None of the GOP hopefuls bothered to stop by and Donald Trump only visited the non-operational water plant there long after he secured the nomination. But that didn’t stop Republicans like Snyder and now-Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel from sniffing that Democrats were politicizing the tragedy.
I’m on record noting that everyone politicized the crisis and no one should care. At least it brought some much-needed attention and aid to the long-suffering city.
Hanna-Attisha first dipped her toe in political controversy when she couldn’t stop shaking her head “no” at a Snyder administration’s January 2016 press conference. The physician took issue with how then-Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyons minimized the damage caused by lead poisoning. A year later, Snyder smartly appointed Hanna-Attisha to serve on his Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission.
There was certainly some private grousing among Republicans that the pediatrician was making Snyder look bad over Flint, but people were smart enough not to say so publicly.
But the grumbling has gotten progressively louder after Hanna-Attisha spoke this winter at the Michigan Progressive Summit, which is kind of like Lollapalooza for liberals. The Iraqi-born immigrant praised the 1936 Flint sit-down strike and slammed the Emergency Manager law for being “undemocratic.” She revealed she’s not a fan of the Electoral College and criticized gerrymandering.
She also wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed on Trump’s Muslim ban, noting that her family arrived in the United States in 1980 “full of hope, trading a future of war, fascism and oppression for one of peace, freedom and opportunity.” The doctor argued they would have been denied entry to the country if the ban had been in place, which is causing the “American dream to fade away.”
And Hanna-Attisha accompanied Kildee to Trump’s address before the joint session of Congress. She issued a joint statement with him afterward slamming the president for failing to mention Flint and vowing to cut the Environmental Protection Agency.
She’s told the media she’s not going to run for office. But this will probably all make her a political target anyway. The right-wing Independent Women’s Forum just published a mocking post on the “March for Science” this month in Washington, which appeared to question the physician’s qualifications to speak there.
Hanna-Attisha will likely soon be subject to admonishments from conservative and centrist opinion-makers that she’s sullying her cause by “getting political” or becoming an unwitting tool of the left. That’s naturally pretty insulting to someone with a medical degree.
And it also underscores a destructive, self-sabotaging force in politics today. Most people — even those who work in and around government — agree that politics is a filthy, filthy business. And so therefore, anyone who sullies their hands by speaking out or running for office is viewed as being somewhat tainted.
That’s, of course, a terrific (and perhaps a deeply cynical) way to drive good people away from politics.
Think about it. Why wouldn’t we want people making positive change in Flint or anywhere else to talk publicly about political problems or make the leap to being a candidate for office? That’s how this is supposed to work.
I understand why Hanna-Attisha may not want to run for anything. She would lose plenty of friends and discover she has enemies she never imagined. Her personal life would be put under a microscope and judged. And some of the same folks who fell over themselves praising her unselfish work in Flint would now finger-wag that she’s just a typical politician.
But we desperately need people like Hanna-Attisha in public service, now more than ever. And if our political culture drives people like her away, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s irrevocably broken.
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.