The US presidential contests are moving to snowy Michigan after the Southern-dominated contests of Super Tuesday, and the water crisis in Flint is likely to be front and center.
The remaining Republican contenders face off in a Detroit debate tonight, while Democrats debate Sunday in Flint itself. The city's lead-laced water has become a black eye for Michigan's business-minded GOP governor, Rick Snyder, and a poster child for regulatory failure. So many in the state are hoping to hear some answers — if not about how to fix Flint itself, then how to prevent future Flints.
"It is the relevant issue in terms of the relationship of government to people," said Henry Henderson, the Midwest director of the National Resources Defense Council, which has drafted a list of suggested questions for debate moderators.
"There's a huge relationship between the federal government and state and local government," said Henderson, whose organization is part of a lawsuit by Flint residents. "When state and local government expose their population to an enduring neurological poison, there's an explicit role for the federal government to respond. This is relevant to ask what the aspiring chief executive of the United States government would actually do to protect people. I would hope [the moderators] would ask these questions."
Flint once got its water from Lake Huron via Detroit's water system, but the long-depressed city made plans to switch to a cheaper system under construction 2013. In the meantime, it started drawing water from the Flint River — a waterway polluted with high levels of industrial waste and agricultural runoff. And the city failed to treat that corrosive water with chemicals that prevent it from leaching lead out of the aging pipes that route water around town.
"Flint didn't happen overnight. It's not something where it was simply the push of a button to switch the water that caused this crisis," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal lobby group Progress Michigan, which has called for Snyder's resignation. "The fact that we haven't been able to fully fund our cities, our education systems — it's a long string of things."
Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have offered their full-throated support for Flint. Both have made campaign appearances there. In a Super Tuesday victory speech, Clinton said the city's children "were poisoned by toxic water because their governor wanted to save a little money," while Sanders has said Snyder should resign.
'That has led to an entire city that has been poisoned because we were running government like a business, as opposed to like a government, and focusing only on the bottom line.'
But Republicans have been muted. Real-estate mogul Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, called it "a shame" and something that "shouldn't happen," but declined further comment. Only Ben Carson — a Detroit native, who will skip tonight's debate, and appears ready to fold his campaign after running at the back of the GOP pack — strongly criticized the response, calling it "abominable" in a January appearance on BET. Carson said there was "much blame to go around," but added that the crisis was unlikely to have happened to a wealthy community.
Campaign workers for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz handed out bottled water in Flint — but only to those inside anti-abortion, pregnancy crisis centers. Wendy Lynn Day, Michigan state director for the Cruz campaign, said the donations demonstrated "the pro-life values of Senator Cruz," according to a Detroit News reporter.
Flint residents began complaining when their water supply became brownish and smelled foul after the switch to the Flint River. Their anger was fueled by the fact that the change was approved by an "emergency manager" appointed by Snyder's administration to balance the cash-strapped city's books, displacing the elected mayor and city council.
"Flint could be any poor city in America when we allow the systematic dismantling of our democracy though things like emergency manager laws, and when we don't stand up against the austerity policies that are leading our cities into financial distress," Scott said.
Scott said he wants to hear Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Cruz talk in more detail about what they would do to help Flint. But under the circumstances, he really wants to hear Trump defend his basic pitch — that as a successful businessman, he'll be able to run the country better than a traditional politician.
"The people in Michigan heard that before," he said. Snyder, a former computer executive, was first elected in 2010 on promises that he could deliver tight-fisted conservative reform.
"That has led to an entire city that has been poisoned because we were running government like a business, as opposed to like a government, and focusing only on the bottom line," Scott said. "I would like to hear him directly address that."
Snyder won't be endorsing a candidate in the GOP race, his communications director, Ari Adler, said Thursday. Though Scott suggested that was because nobody wants a nod from the embattled governor, Adler said the governor had been approached by some campaigns, but is focused on fixing Flint. And he defended Snyder's basic approach to running the state.
"The failure of government occurred at all levels, and part of it was the bureaucratic processes that were in place," Adler said. "We're trying to figure out how those problems occurred, and how do we fix state government so it doesn't happen again."
After last week's release of thousands of pages of e-mail from his senior aides showed they warned about the "downright scary" water in early 2014, Snyder told reporters he was "kicking himself every day." But he says he's committed to repairing the damage.
"The best way to restore trust in government is to have government fix the problem that it caused first, and that's what we're focused on right now," Adler said. "Then, secondary to that, is to show them what we have done to make sure that this doesn't happen again."
Only in October, when a Flint pediatrician documented a spike in lead levels in the city's children, did the city switch back to Detroit's water system. And in addition to the specter of lead poisoning, scientists are studying whether bacterial contamination led to a string of cases of Legionnaire's disease that killed 10 people.
Snyder's not the only target of public ire: Dayne Walling, the Flint mayor who initially defended the water switch, got bounced out by voters in November. The head of Michigan's state environmental regulators quit in December, after revelations that his agency had dismissed concerns about the lead problem. And at the federal level, Susan Hedeman — the regional Environmental Protection Agency chief who kept her agency's concerns under wraps — was pushed out in January.
That's done long-term damage the public's faith in its own institutions, Henderson said.
"You've got cascading types of corrosion," he said. "It corrodes public trust while it's corroding the infrastructure and poisoning people. It poisons the ability to participate in shared decision-making for the public good, and it results in literally poisoning people."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl