By John Lindstrom
Posted: February 18, 2016 3:02 PM
One spends enough time as a reporter covering politics that one gets to know a lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum. One gets to know them as individuals, one understands that outside of their partisan viewpoints (no matter how intense and passionate) they have similar interests and talk easily amongst themselves about kids, the games, vacations, which plumber to use. The really important things in life, in other words.
The Flint water crisis remains the most critical issue in the state. And never wanting to waste a good crisis, both parties are attempting to use the disaster to their benefit.
Which makes conversations this reporter has had recently with Republicans, mostly, so very interesting. We met in a variety of settings -- at a funeral, at lunch, at the gym and other places – so they were all at ease, off the clock, during the conversations. Some are in government (and fairly high in government) some are business folks, some retired. All are well read, all thoughtful, all very up on the news. Some were in Lansing, some in Detroit. Some are old friends. Some this reporter has known professionally for years.
And all of them recognized Flint as a failure, a spectacular failure, of state government. They also worried that it was particularly a failure of their party, as they almost universally said: “Our guys.”
No matter the setting, or the day, or the circumstance of the conversations, or who was speaking (and not everyone speaking would have known each other), there was an almost stunning repetition to each conversation’s tone: They brought up the Flint situation, and they said, unprompted, it was a failure of state government and their party.
They acknowledged mistakes were made by Flint city officials and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but they said those errors were not as critical as the mistakes and the attitude state government showed while the crisis was brewing.
One, a retired business executive, said with all the complaints about the water that went on for a year before the discovery the water was tainted with lead “Were they paying any attention to people at all?”
Another, a government official, said, “We screwed it up. This is on us.”
All agreed that whatever it took to fix the problem and ensure it did not happen again had to be done. One hinted that maybe the state should not spend money on any other project in any other place in the state until Flint’s water situation was solved.
The ones who were in government worried that Flint showed that many of their fellow Republicans have lost the sense of what it meant to be in government and what government is supposed to do.
“We keep saying we have to run government like a business. But government isn’t a business. You can’t run it like a business,” one said. Turning briefly to the presidential campaign, the person said, “We’re real good at being the party of ‘no,’ but we have to show we can govern.”
As one of the conversations drew to a close, one of the government Republicans looked over and asked: “Do you think the old man can get through it?” In other words: Would Governor Rick Snyder be forced to resign? After this reporter’s hedging reply, this person nodded with a look that suggested he would not be surprised if Mr. Snyder did leave office early.
It is impossible to say if these attitudes are reflective of most Republicans or most people, and what they may mean to state action and policy. It is an election year, Flint will be an issue, and both parties will try to use the crisis to their advantage even as efforts are underway to resolve the crisis. Republicans will stick with their guys, just as Democrats will stand with theirs.
But it was an interesting to hear conversations where the speakers understood the differences between politics and governing and how governing should not be drowned in the political well.