Politics & Prejudices: What really caused the Flint disaster 

Politics & Prejudices

What's the moral of the story? You have to put people ahead of dollars and cents.

-U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, (D-Flint)

Dan Kildee, Flint's congressman for the last three years, should have had a sense of satisfaction the day I talked to him. For months, he had been pushing Gov. Rick Snyder to swallow his pride and ask for federal help for Flint.

Finally, on Jan. 15, with his political house of cards collapsing all around him, the now not-so-tough nerd did. Within a day, President Barack Obama granted his request, agreeing there was a federal emergency in Flint.

That meant at least $5 million in new money to help the people whose water had been poisoned by Snyder's appointees. But Kildee wasn't crowing.

Instead, he sounded a little weary. He didn't want to bash Snyder; the world was finally doing that. Everyone from Cher to The New York Times was calling for his head. But when I pressed, Kildee said this:

"Where this governor absolutely failed was in bringing to state government a corporate philosophy that is very bottom-line focused. His charge to his city managers was that their top priority was to get the balance sheet in order."

That, he told me, was why they thought it was perfectly acceptable to unplug Flint from fresh, clean water and give the residents discolored, smelly, bacteria-filled water, to save a few bucks. Snyder's emergency managers did nothing when a General Motors engine plant stopped using city water soon after the changeover to the Flint River because it was corroding engine parts.

So what? The point was that it seemed to save money, and whether they consciously thought this way or not, for them it was good enough for a bunch of mostly poor and black people.

By the way, Flint residents were and are being charged more for tainted water than the swells in Bloomfield Hills are for good water.

Even with that, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality might have been able to avoid the lead poisoning scandal had they added an anti-corrosion chemical to the water. That's what federal standards call for.

You might have thought somebody would have rushed to do that the moment they heard about the complaints from GM. But no.

Treating the water for corrosion would have cost, maybe, a few hundred dollars a day. Why pay for that for a bunch of deadbeats?

Bottom line, bottom line. Even when alarm bells about Flint started going off, those running the legislature weren't concerned.

Take state Rep. Al Pscholka, a Republican from Southwest Michigan, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Here's what he said earlier this month, long after it had become clear how badly the state had poisoned these people and tried to cover up what they'd done:

"I know there's a frenzy to just open the wallet and spend some money, and I think we need to be a little more cautious." That's code for, why waste it on a bunch of lazy blacks who wouldn't vote for us anyway?

Governor Snyder's response to the mess in Flint followed a now-predictable pattern: When things aren't going the way he wants, his normal response is to put his hands over his eyes.

Even more than most politicians, he has a hard time admitting when he was wrong, and we've been the ones paying the price. Take the prison food-service scandal brought to us by Aramark, the contractor from hell.

Despite horror stories from around the country about their performance, the governor privatized a system that had been working efficiently and well in favor of Aramark. Immediately, there was scandal after scandal.

As I noted last week, it still took forever for him to fire them.

What happened in Flint was much the same. Kildee told me he was aware by July that there was something serious to the lead issue. On Sept. 22, he had a telephone conversation in which he urged the governor to seek federal aid.

"What I heard was mainly a bunch of process-y happy talk," Kildee told me. A week later, he sent a follow-up letter: Nothing.

Nothing in October, when Snyder finally ordered Flint reconnected to Detroit water. Why? Well, that's a mystery, though my guess is the answer probably is rooted in his stubborn pride.

The roof finally fell in on Governor Denial. Suddenly, the nation woke up to what had been happening in Flint. The New York Times attacked him specifically in an uncommonly scathing editorial. "The governor, a Republican, did virtually nothing to help the city until an outpouring of rage from Flint residents, city leaders, journalists, and independent researchers forced him to wake up and focus on the calamity, which started more than a year ago."

The nation's most important newspaper lambasted Snyder for failing for months "to call on the most obvious source of assistance: The Federal Emergency Management Agency." The Times made it clear Snyder was to blame.

"Whatever fix is required, the buck clearly stops with him," it said.

Hard to remember now, but a year ago, some people were talking about running Rick Snyder for president. Six months ago, he was seen as a shoo-in for a Cabinet post if a Republican president takes office next year.

Now, the only question is whether he can manage to hang on to his job for the next three years his political career is over.

There are two ironies about all this. Snyder loves to say he is all about relentless positive action. Except when the rubber met the road here, he wasn't relentless, he did little positive, and waited forever to take any action.

Plus, this will cost the state far, far more in dollars and cents, not to mention blighted lives, than doing the right thing would have.

That's what the bottom line boys so often miss.

Is Ted Cruz eligible to be president?

Donald Trump thinks he may not be — and he's not alone. A Houston attorney has filed a lawsuit claiming Cruz isn't, because he was born in Calgary, Alberta, where he lived till he was 4.

A little-known constitutional law professor at the University of Delaware named Brigid McManamon also argued in a recent Washington Post piece that the Constitution holds any president has to be born on American soil.

Well, as tempting as it may be to believe we are safe from the Cruzer, nearly everyone who really knows anything about the law believes that yes, Cruz is eligible to be president. While the Constitution does indeed say that "no person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of president," one impressive authority clearly would have thought Cruz eligible.

That would be George Washington. He signed a bill in 1790 that said: "Children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens."

Robert Sedler, a distinguished constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said the controversy was silly. "There's no question; Cruz is clearly eligible to run for president," said Sedler, who is anything but a Cruz backer.

However, raising the issue is probably smart politics for Trump. Nobody can ever be certain how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule.

The last thing any Republican wants is a presidential nominee at any risk of being elected ­— and then disqualified. If voters are sufficiently unnerved by that, it can do nothing but help drive them to the Donald.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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