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‘We can’t have a situation where Flint is always next’: How one Democrat got a GOP Congress to help his home town

Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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The 114th Congress wrapped up its work in the wee hours Saturday morning after a partisan clash briefly raised fears of a government shutdown. Most stories reported that Democrats lost their bid to preserve health benefits for coal miners and a requirement for American-made steel in federal water projects. But they secured a victory that didn’t make headlines but represented the culmination of more than a year’s work: At least $170 million in aid for the beleaguered city of Flint, Mich.

Flint’s drinking water has been largely undrinkable after a 2014 cost-cutting decision to switch water sources caused lead to leach out of supply pipes. Since then, the Michigan congressional delegation — led by Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Rep. Daniel Kildee, all Democrats — have pushed the federal government to step up and help a poor, majority-black American city in crisis.

‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.

Kildee, a Flint native who has spent years advocating for forgotten industrial cities like his home town, became the face of that crisis on Capitol Hill — keeping the issue at the top of the Democrats’ priority list in 2016 and ultimately negotiating with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to provide aid. He, along with Peters and Stabenow, delivered a package that gives Flint access to $100 million in federal grants to fix its water infrastructure and allows the state of Michigan to forgive $20 million in past water-related loans and provides $50 million to address the health care of children exposed to lead. That will supplement the $234 million earmarked for Flint relief by the Republican-controlled state government.

Kildee spoke to The Washington Post on two occasions in recent weeks as the Flint aid package moved toward passage; the interviews have been combined and edited for length.

Talk about the final weeks of getting this done. Were there any moments where you were afraid this deal might fall apart?

It’s been honestly almost a daily negotiation, mostly at a staff level. The thing that I kept focusing on is that we had a deal: We sat down face-to-face and made a deal that the speaker said he would live up to. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but he did hold up his end of the bargain. I don’t like a lot of the other stuff they did. But I think I must have talked to every single member of our caucus and a lot of Republicans between September and now. What it proves is you have to have a good argument, and I think we did.

What’s the best current estimate of what the cost is going to be to replace all the pipes that need to be replaced and make the community whole?

A couple hundred million dollars, at least. The other aspect of this, though, goes beyond the need to fix the pipes. There’s long-term damage from this crisis that demands a response. The health impact on people will be felt for a long time, but particularly the health impact on children could be not just decades long but multigenerational. Lead is a neurotoxin, so it affects brain development. You have this whole cohort of the Flint population — 9,000 kids who are under the age of 6, which is the most at-risk population, and pregnant or nursing mothers — those folks are going to potentially have manifestations of their lead exposure in five years or in 10 years.

Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level

Has Congress done its part, or is there more that will need to be done beyond this?

I think, for now, this is a big down payment. My position would be a very firm position that the state of Michigan must do much, much more than what they’ve done. We may still seek other help here to fill in gaps that are missing, but I’m going to be pushing very hard that the state of Michigan not feel like they can just check the box and walk away and say that the rest of it is a federal responsibility. Virtually every objective analyst shows that the state bears the vast majority of the responsibility.

This issue stayed front and center for Democrats over months. It ebbed and flowed, but when it came time to get something done, this wasn’t a card to be dealt at the bargaining table. How did that happen?

Number one, a lot of members were just personally moved by what they saw when they came to Flint. We’ve had something like 40 Democrats come to Flint. This is where my role comes in — I never shut up about this. Virtually every caucus meeting, every whip meeting, every senior whip meeting. I don’t know how many floor speeches I did on Flint, but it’s a lot.

The Congressional Black Caucus seemed to have a special role here.

Yeah, Flint is a poor community, and Flint is a minority community. It’s my home town, and I think I relate to the way the CBC feels about Flint. Being from Flint and representing Flint and having worked in the political environment in that community for my whole life, you get used to being pigeonholed: “Oh, that’s Flint.” Even bringing up the question of race, despite everything that we’re going through as a society, and even in the last decade especially, people are uncomfortable talking about it. It’s something that is really hard to have an honest conversation about without people having a reaction that makes them uncomfortable. It’s especially hard for African American leaders to advance that argument without looking — and this is a sad thing — without looking as if it is self-serving, which is unfair to them completely, because we all represent our districts. The way I approach it is not to try to outthink myself. I feel very strongly about places like Flint, poor communities, especially a lot of them which are majority-minority communities. They need somebody to speak up for them. That’s what I do.

Flint water crisis emerges as a key piece of Democrats’ election-year message

A lot of your Democratic colleagues didn’t like a lot of the things that either ended up or didn’t end up in this legislation. What was your case to them that this needed to get done?

There are always reasons to vote against legislation. We all have to make judgments, whether or not on balance these bills should move forward. There’s bad stuff in almost every bill that we vote for or against. The thing that I was pushing that resonated with all but 61 people, apparently, is that we can’t have a situation where Flint is always next, that we have to do these other things and these other priorities are stronger or they outweigh the interests of Flint. That just feels too much like the circumstances that caused the Flint crisis in the first place. Flint was an afterthought to the state of Michigan. It was an afterthought to the governor. Other priorities were more important than Flint. That’s why they got stuck with water that poisoned their kids. We can’t in the response to that crisis apply that same principle.

You’ve been critical of how the state, particularly Governor Rick Snyder, has acted pretty much throughout.

One of the biggest frustrations that I had is that a year ago right now, actually, I called the governor and wrote to the governor. I said: “Look, you’ve got to help me out. Ask for federal help. Then I can go to work.” He’s a Republican governor. There’s a Republican majority here. Ask for federal help. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was in the cloakroom asking for flood relief. Where was Rick Snyder? He made a call, I guess. This is part of the dynamic that is a thread running through this entire story that we are fighting to get everything we can for Flint. I just wish the people who were actually accountable for what happened were fighting that hard. If they were, we may have had gotten to this point earlier. I don’t know. It’s possible.

There’s a governor’s race coming up, and your name has been mentioned as someone who might be thinking about it.

Now the election’s over, I will give myself a little space to think about it more clearly. We’re going to take a serious look at it. For me, it sounds kind of Pollyannaish, but I just have to decide where do I think I’ll have the best and greatest opportunity to work on these things that I really care about. There’s a political calculation that comes with that, too: What are the odds of being able to be successful running statewide? We’ll see.