This post has been updated with Gov. Snyder's emails on Flint
Above-average levels of lead in water that had been poisoning people in Flint for months is a public health crisis for the state of Michigan.
It's also a public trust crisis for Gov. Rick Snyder (R), and it will likely take nothing less than a full recounting of his role in it to earn that trust back -- assuming it's not too late.
After the hardscrabble city of 100,000 switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River to save money in April 2014, there are real questions about what Snyder and his top aides knew about the residents' complaints. The water, which researchers later found was corrosive to the lead pipes that transported it to much of the city, was smelly, murky and gave their children rashes. Avoiding it became a way of life for Flint residents.
Snyder said in an interview published Monday with National Journal that he knew last summer that his top aides were concerned that Flint residents were "getting blown off" by the state's environmental department (whose director has since resigned).
But it wasn't until a local health official found in September that the proportion of lead in Flint children's blood levels had doubled to above-average levels, with potentially irreversible consequences for some, that government appeared to swing into action. The lead levels might also be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease that is tied to the death of 10 in the county Flint resides in.
It's a classic case of government dropping the ball at all levels -- from city to state to federal officials -- said Steve Mitchell, a Republican political consultant and pollster in Michigan.
And if there's a textbook for how leaders should respond in crises that cast their leadership in doubt, Snyder appears to be following it. He has publicly apologized twice, most recently in Tuesday night's State of the State address.
"I'm sorry, and I will fix it," Snyder said near the opening of his 50-minute speech, directly addressing the residents of Flint, according to the Detroit Free Press:. "You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.
"We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city."
In addition to expressing contrition for what happened, Snyder outlined how he'd try to make things better. President Obama already declared Flint a federal emergency area, but Snyder is going to appeal Obama's refusal to consider Flint a federal disaster area (which would open up public funds normally reserved for national disasters). He'll also ask the state legislature to approve $28.5 million to pay for more bottled water, filters and a more than doubling of the Michigan National Guard stationed in Flint.
The $28 million request was weaving its way through the state legislature Wednesday and was expected to pass in full by the end of the day, reports Free Press's Paul Egan.
There's more. Just as the House unanimously passed the aid package, Snyder released his emails related to the crisis, even though the governor's office in Michigan doesn't fall under the state's open-records law and the emails therefore could technically be kept private.
As of Wednesday evening, initial reviews of the emails seemed to indicate Snyder was aware of complaints about the water problem in January 2015 and requested his then-chief of staff look into it. Emails this fall and winter, after news of the lead levels became public, indicate Snyder and his aides trying to grapple with the problem, its magnitude, and who might be to blame.
— reported.ly (@reportedly) January 20, 2016
#Snyder emails: On 12/28, after getting notice of harsh task force letter, incoming CoS advises Gov to accept Dan Wyant's resignation
— Paul Egan (@paulegan4) January 20, 2016
It's not immediately clear whether the emails helped clear up what Snyder knew and when. Snyder also said Wednesday that he won't release the emails of other members of his administration, calling his decision to share his correspondence a personal one. Some Michigan Democratic lawmakers and transparency groups criticized that decision and asked for proof that Snyder will indeed release all of his own emails.
But perhaps most crucially, Snyder recognized that the crisis in Flint is not going to be solved in a few days, weeks, months or even years. (Snyder, who was reelected in 2014 to his second four-year term, is term-limited in 2018. But his lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, is widely considered to have higher ambitions.) He is asking the state legislature to approve upgrades to water systems in Flint and beyond, as well as long-term health monitoring for Flint residents.
That's about everything a governor could do, said Mitchell before the emails were released, who is optimistic that Snyder will weather the situation.
"I've seen it in politics over and over again," he said. "When a politician expresses sincere regret and apologizes for their mistake, people will accept the apology."
Even so, there's a growing drumbeat -- including at the national level among Democrats -- for Snyder to do more or leave office entirely. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has called on Snyder to resign, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has said she is "outraged" and that "the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care" until her campaign aides showed up to look into the issue.
But Mitchell said it's difficult to gauge the sentiment among actual Michiganders for whether Snyder should step down. About 150 protesters recently marched outside the state capitol and his office, some calling for Snyder to resign. But aside from them, Sanders and a few others, it hasn't quite become a chorus just yet. The mayor of Flint, for example, isn't joining them. Other calls have been more conditional; one Democratic leader in the state legislature said Snyder should resign if he is found to have known about the problem and ignored it.
Polling on Snyder's job approval rating after his very public apology should paint a clearer picture. As recently as June, Snyder was doing pretty well in a blue-leaning state, with a 55 percent approval rating. That existing goodwill could be important when it comes to people believing Snyder wasn't in the wrong in this particular case.
One thing's certain: For the people in Flint who spent nearly 18 months trying to avoid the city's water while their government told them it was safe to drink -- and especially for those sickened or even killed by the water -- there may be no amount of reparations that can make things better.
Snyder appears to recognize that. Whether everyone else in the state believes that his sincerity is enough is the question that has yet to be answered.