In a rare confluence of events, Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee finds himself at the center of two of the country’s biggest political stories this week. One ended Saturday, with the release of Flint native Amir Hekmati and four other Americans from an Iranian prison. The other, the federal state of emergency over lead poisoning in Flint’s water, was just beginning. The parallel stories have thrust the two-term congressman into the national spotlight. The attention has also given fodder to speculation that Kildee might leave his House seat to run for governor in 2018, or, conversely, become a national leader in his party.
“He could continue to serve in Congress for another 20 years and never have another time like this,” said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger. “I think the headline is: 'Democratic Congressman Reaps Unexpected Whirlwind of Publicity — Will it Pay Off Politically for Him Down the Line?'”
Kildee fought for four years for the release of Hekmati, and flew to Germany Sunday with Hekmati’s family to be among the first to greet him. Two days earlier, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, where lead has contaminated the drinking water. Kildee was among the first to call for a federal investigation of the contaminated water. He claimed that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is responsible for the disaster.
“I would say the last three days have been a unique moment in my career,” Kildee said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m in Germany getting a young man from my home town out of Iranian prison and the whole world is watching. It’s pretty overwhelming at times, and at the same time I’m fighting a battle for the very future, the existential threat the water crisis has posed to my hometown.”
Hekmati, a former Marine, was detained in 2011 and accused of espionage during a visit to his grandmother in Iran. Kildee’s advocacy for the Hekmati family drove him to question the administration's approach.
"He wasn’t afraid to go against the Democratic administration at times when he thought they weren’t being forceful enough," said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a state political newsletter. "When Obama was announcing his treaty with Iran, Kildee was very forceful, saying the prisoner issue had to be addressed."
The congressman also pressed Obama to mention the issue during the State of the Union address last week. Sarah Hekmati was Kildee’s guest for the speech.
Hekmati’s plight took on added personal meeting for Kildee when Kildee’s father died unexpectedly in December, he said. Hekmati's supporters were pushing for his release in time for him to see his own father, who has terminal brain cancer.
On the water issue, Kildee said he first called for a meeting with the Michigan governor’s office and federal and state officials last summer. The city had switched its water supply in 2014, drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron in an effort to save money. Residents reportedly complained of rashes and strange odors, but officials said the water was safe to drink until elevated levels of lead were found in city children’s blood last year.
Snyder called for a federal state of emergency last week, and Obama authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend up to $5 million providing water, filters and other items. On Sunday, the issue came up in the Democratic presidential debate.
In a news release, Kildee urged the governor to go further, calling on Snyder to use a state budget surplus of $575 million to pay for long-term health and educational needs of the children who were exposed. In a state of the state address Tuesday night, Snyder apologized for not taking action sooner and pledged support for infrastructure improvement, including replacing water pipes.
Detroit News columnist Nolan Finely opined last week that the crisis was giving Kildee the name recognition he needed to advance his political career. “Odds are Kildee will emerge as the hero of this debacle, and that’s not a bad jumping off spot for a gubernatorial bid,” Nolan wrote. “His interest lies in keeping the issue alive.”
The gregarious and even-keeled scion of a local political family, Kildee said he has been tackling social justice issues since he was first elected to public office — the Flint Board of Education— when he was 18 years old. Back then, Kildee was riled up by a decision to slash the budget for a high school peer counseling program for kids dealing with drug abuse or teen pregnancy that Kildee helped create. Kildee’s friends said he showed an aptitude for public life even then.
“He’s one of the coolest guys under pressure that you’ll ever meet,” said Jeff Tippet, a friend since high school and Kildee’s campaign treasurer. “He never flies off the handle about things. He has a great mind when it comes to processing what needs to be processed.”
Kildee later made a name for himself as a county treasurer when he established a program called a "land bank," creating a model for local governments to take control of abandoned property. He co-founded a nonprofit organization, The Center for Community Progress, to teach local officials how to revitalize blighted areas. He left that post to run for Congress, taking a seat vacated by his uncle, Dale Kildee, a 36-year incumbent who retired in 2013.
“He’s incredibly media savvy,” said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a state political newsletter. “He clearly knows how to get a message out. The fact that a second-term member of Congress serving in the minority could attract the attention of the current presidential administration and Hillary Clinton, who hopes to succeed president Obama, speaks very highly of his political talents. If he were just a back bencher, I don’t think you would see that.”
Kildee said the Iran prison negotiations and the push for accountability in Flint were both, “fights for justice.”
“I’m not doing anything differently that I always have,” Kildee said. “Sometime you get a lot of attention. Sometimes you wage a quiet fight and no one notices. It would surprise some people how little I’m thinking about politics right now.”
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