Susan J. Demas: Michigan Punts on Flint and Nassar Crises

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Just after Barack Obama’s election during the dawn of the Great Recession, his future chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, caught some heat for this observation:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Republicans like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have claimed Emanuel was arguing for Democrats to exploit tough times to ram through their agenda. In reality, Politifact notes Emanuel “specifically urged addressing longstanding problems with ‘ideas from both parties’ when a crisis presents the opportunity.”

This controversy, like so many of the Obama era (remember the right-wing roil over his “Between Two Ferns” appearance?), seems downright quaint today. We routinely careen from one Trump administration firestorm to the next, from Trump’s lawyer claiming he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 for her silence on her alleged affair with the president to Trump taking a week to condemn domestic violence after allegations surfaced against two senior aides.

But here in Michigan, there just may be a lesson in Emanuel’s words. It’s tempting to feel some moral superiority about our politics compared to the gauche circus in Washington. However, we’re still grappling with a host of problems, as national headlines on the Flint water crisis and the Michigan State University Larry Nassar scandal can attest.

Both crises deserve a number of policy prescriptions to ensure they never happen again. Unfortunately, there are huge ideological barriers in dealing with the mass poisoning of a largely African-American city during the tenure of a GOP governor and a sexual abuse scandal that ESPN reports could ensnare a Big 10 university’s sacred football and basketball programs (an idea apparently so unfathomable that interim MSU President John Engler and several Michigan reporters have gone on the attack).

Hoping that our GOP-controlled state opts for stricter environmental regulations or mandates on sexual abuse reporting appears to be a pipe dream. That fact alone is a powerful testimony that Michigan needs some real change in this next election.

But there are a couple of common-sense legislative actions that should be able to net bipartisan support: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform and a process for appointing independent special prosecutors.

One of the reasons why the Flint water crisis has dragged on much longer than it had to is people living there couldn’t get basic information about their water and serious health effects. Neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature is subject to FOIA in Michigan, making us one of only two states with such restrictions.

There have been a couple attempts to expand FOIA, but they’ve stalled. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) last year sneered to journalists: “You guys are the only people who care about this.”

I’m pretty sure that parents of kids with lead poisoning and the families of 12 people who died of Legionnaires’ disease would have appreciated access to more government information.

Now some of the legislation proposed isn’t perfect and would set up a Byzantine process for getting information from legislative offices. But FOIA reforms should be the lowest of low-hanging fruit and a top priority.

MSU’s handling of the Nassar scandal is now being investigated by former Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s running for governor, is directing the investigation, the Detroit Free Press uncovered (thanks to FOIA!), although he had claimed that Forsyth was an “independent special prosecutor.”

As the AG’s office charged Nassar with sexual assault crimes, this is an obvious conflict. Not to mention the fact that Schuette has strong ties to Engler, who appointed the AG to his cabinet while he was Michigan’s governor.

That’s led Lt. Gov. Brian Calley to propose legislation establishing a new class of independent special prosecutor in state law to avoid conflicts of interest.

Now Calley has a clear political interest here. He’s facing Schuette in the GOP gubernatorial primary this year. After watching Schuette snag endless headlines for prosecuting high-profile members of the Gov. Rick Snyder administration over Flint, Calley isn’t eager to see a replay so close to the August election.

Of course, in the Nassar investigation, it’s doubtful that the AG probe will target Calley’s colleagues again, as the focus should be on MSU administration. However, it’s easy to see how Schuette’s likely general election opponent, Gretchen Whitmer, could become a focus for her role as interim Ingham County prosecutor.

Calley argues that there are cases that deserve a truly independent prosecutor and he wants to give the courts that power. Alas, with Republicans running the Legislature divided in their loyalties between Calley and Schuette, this reform will probably get even less traction than FOIA legislation.

It seems that the Legislature is following the same dysfunctional pattern we’ve come to expect from the GOP-led Congress where gridlock isn’t just the byproduct divided government anymore.  

Don’t be surprised if voters demand better this fall.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Run, Dr. Mona, Run

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.

Susan J. Demas: What Rick Snyder Could Learn from Obama on Flint

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 beat the response from the governor, who’s still blaming “career bureaucrats” and hasn’t met with Flint families clamoring for his attention.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Everybody is ‘politicizing’ Flint –– and nobody should care

The following column appeared in Dome Magazine.

“What I would say is: Politicizing the issue doesn’t help matters. Let’s focus in on the solution and how to deal with the damage that was done and help the citizens of Flint and make Flint a stronger community.” – Gov. Rick Snyder in response to criticism from Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Detroit News, Jan. 19

The Flint water crisis is, first and foremost, about people. Young children are most susceptible to lead poisoning, so the devastating reality is that they’re facing a lifetime of health issues. And we don’t know how many people have been harmed, which is horrifying, in and of itself.

Reasonable people don’t dispute these facts.