Dan Kildee on Donald Trump, Bill Schuette and What Has To Happen Next in Flint

By Susan J. Demas

You’re not going to want to miss the latest subscription-only edition of IMP, which features our exclusive interview with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) talking at length about weighing a 2018 gubernatorial bid.

Here’s a taste of Kildee’s candor, as he gives his take on the Flint water crisis and whether Donald Trump can win Michigan this year. And if you want a preview of what his gubernatorial campaign against Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette could look like, check out Kildee’s thoughts about LGBT and women’s rights:

IMP: Going back to the Flint water crisis, is it accurate to describe it as a failure of government at every level?

Kildee: Let me sort of dissect that a little bit. To the extent that there were failures, they were predominately at the state level. There’s no way to assign the failures in city government to anybody but the state of Michigan, since the city was essentially a department of the state of Michigan [under a state-appointed emergency manager] during that entire period. So it’s a little disingenuous for the governor to continue to say this was a ‘failure at every level’ in a way that implies some equivalency of responsibility.

I will say this, I am of the view that the federal government could have done more. So I don’t take the position that there was not any fault at the federal level. But it’s a bit more nuanced than I think the conversation would normally go. Nuanced in this sense: Every day I fight against Republicans who want to either weaken or eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Who basically work to put handcuffs on the EPA when it comes to protecting the environment. I fight that battle continuously. And so to hear Republicans who on one day say the EPA should stay out of Michigan’s business, and on the next day, try to say that they should have done more to stop Michigan’s government from making the huge mistakes it made, it rings a bit hollow.

But that doesn’t mean that the federal government shouldn’t have done more. I think they should have. I think, for example, the EPA should have exceeded its formal authority and said to the state and said to everyone, ‘There’s a problem with the water in Flint.’ And they should have said it publicly and loudly and continuously. There is an argument that that would have succeeded their authority.

But my view is this: There’s a moral imperative involved here. They should have spoken up. They should have told public officials; they should have told the public what they were discovering. Instead, they insisted that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) concern itself with environmental quality. They made an assumption that the state would do its job. And my view is the EPA should never be in a position where it’s making assumptions about what another entity is doing, whether it’s a state department in some state or a manufacturing company or an oil company. They should never operate on the assumption that they can take people at their word. Their job is to make sure people are protected.

And so I’ve told folks in the EPA, I would rather have them answer tough questions from members of Congress about why they exceeded their formal authority to protect public health than answer tough questions about why they didn’t. And finally to just complete that thought, that’s why I’ve consistently taken the position that the recovery should be the responsibility of the state of Michigan and the federal government. Because we can argue forever: Is it 90% the state’s fault and 10% the federal government? You could have this real interesting esoteric debate about the proportionality of responsibility.

I know what my view is: Most of the responsibility falls to the state of Michigan. And virtually everyone who’s taken an objective view of this, including the governor’s [Rick Snyder] own task force [the Flint Water Advisory Task Force] came to this conclusion. But the people who live in Flint are citizens of Michigan, but they’re also citizens of the United States of America. So this is not one of the situations where the disaster that Rick Snyder created is not a disaster of national proportions. I mean, Rick Snyder made this mess. But it’s still a disaster. And the people experiencing a disaster turn to their government for help, and that includes the federal government. And that’s why I think the federal government has a legitimate role in providing relief and long-term recovery support.

IMP: What do you think needs to be done next?

Kildee: Well, a couple of things. 1. To make sure that the response and recovery plan is equal to the size of this problem. The biggest concern that I have in the short term is that whether it’s at the state level, or even in terms of any federal response, it will either be just enough for, say Gov. [Rick] Snyder or the Michigan Legislature to say that they are responding, but not nearly enough to fix the problem.

And so, the thing that has to happen next is a response that fixes the problem, meaning doesn’t just fix the pipes, but also corrects the effect of this crisis –– gives the kids of Flint a chance to overcome the effect of two years of lead exposure. That’s going to take more than replacing lead service lines and providing bottled water and one or two years of minor increase in early childhood education or school nutrition.

This is one of those moments when the state, especially, but I also think the federal government, has to make a commitment that will be equal to the size of the crisis. And that has simply not happened. The other thing that has to happen, and this is a longer-term question, is for us to have a real conversation in this state --- and this is probably true across the country –– but focusing on Michigan, about what it takes to create a civil society –– to maintain a civil society –– to give people who live in Michigan’s cities, for example, a fair shot.

And what we’ve seen in the last half-decade or so is, I think, a giant step backwards in terms of providing opportunities for people who live in our older cities. We don’t fund public education the way we should. We certainly have a broken municipal finance system. The roads are falling apart. And while the national economy is obviously providing some benefit to the people in the state of Michigan, we still lag far behind. We all saw the data that the middle class is shrinking in Michigan faster than just about anywhere else in the country. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s a result of really bad policy. We have to address that.

And so we have to deal with the short-term issues with Flint –– fix the problem, invest in the long-, intermediate-term support for kids. We have to understand. This didn’t just happen in a vacuum. This is the result of disinvestment that could result in a crisis in some other part of the state. We’ve got to get ahead of that.

IMP: You’re essentially calling on Republicans to reject their current governing philosophy that almost all government is bad and wasteful. Do you think it’s really realistic that that will happen?

Kildee: I think unless they recognize that that philosophy has consequences when taken to its extreme, we’re going to continue to see problems like this. The real question here is not a battle over philosophies, although that’s part of it. It’s a battle over taking an ideology to an extreme place.

What has happened in Flint –– the austerity that you see in city government –– is beyond really anything that I’ve seen. And I’ve worked in I don’t know how many cities around the country. My previous work [as president of the Center for Community Progress] was focused on the challenges of older, industrial cities. So I’ve been in dozens and dozens American cities all facing blight and abandonment and economic challenges. But I’ve never seen the kind of financial austerity that has been imposed on the city of Flint.

So it’s not just an argument over philosophy. It’s an extreme manifestation of that philosophy that they [Republicans] really need to think about. And if they think about what are the drivers of the Flint crisis, it’s austerity in government. It’s putting a city in a position that it’s one mistake away from a disaster and then they made the mistake. What we have to do is not put Michigan cities in a position –– other Michigan cities or Flint again –– in a position where it’s one mistake away from disaster. That’s what they’ve done.

IMP: Did you have any involvement with the decision to build the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline when you served as Genesee County treasurer [from 1997 to 2012]?

Kildee: No. When I go back to when I was a county commissioner, which was from 1985 until 1996, from the day that I got there, there had been continuing discussions about a separate pipeline. So it actually, I learned later on, those discussions had been going on since like the 1960s. But it was all theoretical at that point. I became treasurer in January 1997, and obviously KWA was quite a bit later. And of course, as treasurer, I had no policy role in any of that.

IMP: Unlike Dale Kildee, your predecessor, you are more liberal on social issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Are you concerned that in a statewide campaign, Republicans could paint you as outside the mainstream?

Kildee: No, not really. I mean, first of all, matters that I think are matters of principle --- I couldn’t change my view on these fundamental human rights questions anyway. So it’s not like I give a lot of thought to it, because I’m not going to be someone that I’m not. But having said that, I actually think the positions I take are embraced by most people. Now that doesn’t mean everybody, but certainly when it comes to a woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body, I think the majority of Americans agree that that should be a choice that a woman makes.

When it comes to the basic issue of human rights, at long last, we are finally at a place in this society where individuals are respected for who they are and I think that’s a majority view. And even if it weren’t, I can’t change what I think are basic human rights. People disagree with me; that’s fine. … I actually think this is one of those areas where the country has advanced. Even if you think about the question of human rights for LGBT brothers and sisters, the last five years have been extraordinary.

I think that’s a really good thing, despite the fact that people in state government, even today, if they had a chance to file a lawsuit –– speaking somewhat hypothetically –– to prevent our LGBT brothers and sisters to have their full rights under the Constitution, they would do so. And in fact, they did. I mean, that’s pretty remarkable. It’s one thing to disagree; it’s another thing to actually sue the federal government to prevent Michigan citizens from rights that they have long sought and finally achieved and then they see the Attorney General of the state of Michigan [Bill Schuette, a potential GOP gubernatorial contender] actually sue to try to take those rights back, to try to take them away. It’s incredible.

IMP: Are you surprised that Donald Trump is likely to be the Republicans’ presidential nominee this year?

Kildee: I would have to say I’m a little surprise, but it’s not shocking. Let me put it this way: The things that Donald Trump says about policy every day are things that I’ve heard from members of Congress ever since I’ve been here. Statements that shock the conscience when they’re said by a now-presumptive nominee for the Republican Party are things I’ve been hearing since I’ve been here.

So I guess the point is that the Republican Party has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years, maybe in the last decade or two and has fomented the kind of sentiment that Donald Trump is now representing. So it’s like they created this monster themselves. They’ve benefited from trying to scare people, from blaming the ‘Other’ for the challenges people face, like immigrants; blaming the LGBT community; blaming Muslims; blaming everybody else who looks different or comes from somewhere else who has a different set of values. Republicans in this country have fomented that sentiment and now they have somebody who embraces it and they’re dealing with the consequence of that.

But I take him seriously. I’m not one who dismisses Donald Trump. I take him very seriously.

IMP: Do you think he can win Michigan?

Kildee: Well, I think it’s theoretically possible. I have enough faith in the people of Michigan that that won’t happen. But I don’t think we can take for granted that some won’t be moved by his divisive tone. People are scared and people are anxious, and that anxiety is understandable. They’re anxious about their futures. And unless we can debunk some of Donald Trump’s conclusions about how to overcome those fears and that anxiety, then we could see some people go in his direction. And we have to make sure that we don’t let that happen. I think we have to assume that we’ll have a campaign to fight for here. That’s what we’re gearing up for.