Policy

'Little Miss Flint' Brings Obama To Michigan

No clean water, no money from Congress, but Flint residents will host the president

Vivian Simpson advertises the water distribution area at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The city may not have clean tap water or aid from Congress to fix corroded water pipes. But there's one thing Flint, Mich., has had in abundant supply in recent months: politicians.  

On Wednesday, President Obama said he would add his name to a long roster of elected officials making the trek from D.C. to visit the city, which has become a national symbol of crumbling infrastructure  and environmental crimes against minority communities since the discovery that tens of thousands of people drank lead-tainted tap water.  

[Related: Flint's Katrina Runs Deeper Than Corroded Pipes] Obama announced his May 4 visit in a letter  to an 8-year-old Flint resident that the administration published on the on-line platform Medium.  

"I want to make sure people like you and your family are receiving the help you need and deserve." Obama wrote. "Like you, I’ll use my voice to call for change and help lift up your community."  

Mari Copeny wrote to Obama in March as she was preparing to travel to the Capitol to watch Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder testify at a Congressional hearing .  

"I am one of the children that is affected by this water," she wrote. "And I’ve been doing my best to march in protest and to speak out for all the kids that live here in Flint."  

How Flint Became the New 9th Ward

Copeny said she had worked so hard to speak out for her community that her neighbors had started calling her, "Little Miss Flint." She asked Obama if he could meet with her group, which was among hundreds of Flint residents to attend the three House committee hearings on the water crisis.  

"My mom said chances are you will be too busy with more important things, but there is a lot of people coming on these buses and even just a meeting from you or your wife would really lift people’s spirits," she wrote.  

Mistakes by state and federal regulators when the city switched its water supplier in April of 2014 left residents exposed to undisclosed lead contamination in their drinking water for months.

Separate proposals to send hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid have been stalled for months in both the House and Senate, limiting congressional action to a series of fact-finding hearings and official visits. Flint residents, meanwhile, were told this month by a research team from Virginia Tech that their tap water is still not safe for drinking or cooking. Scientists and students from the university have been conducting tests of the city's water since the first reports that it was making people sick. [Related: Visiting Flint, House Members Vow to Help] President Obama will highlight the administration's commitment to responding to the water crisis during his visit, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. The president also will discuss the administration's desire to prevent a similar situation from occurring elsewhere. Obama's message in Flint will be one directly to citizens there: "We haven't forgotten you," Earnest said. He described Obama and other officials as "beside themselves" that children have been drinking toxic water "for months if not years." "There is a role for the federal government to play in a situation like this," Earnest said. Obama will tell Flint residents that "we will continue to follow through on those commitments." Federal assistance has included a $15 million Department of Labor grant to Michigan “to assist with humanitarian and recovery efforts” by providing temporary work and career and training services, as well as an expansion of Medicaid coverage and Head Start programs for children and families exposed to lead. Earnest also jabbed Republican lawmakers, criticizing them for what he described as blocking additional federal aid to the beleaguered Michigan city.
Michigan House and Senate members who have been pressing for Congressional aid for Flint praised the president's attention to the issue.
"He's been extremely engaged and the administration's been engaged," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. "He's had folks at all levels of the federal government engaged." “All Americans should be focused on the ongoing public health emergency," Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said in a statement. "A city of 100,000 people continues to not have safe drinking water and has been exposed to high levels of lead. As a nation, and as Americans, we must come together to help Flint families recover from this terrible tragedy.” Other politicians who visited Flint include House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Flint also hosted a Democratic presidential debate between Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March. John Bennett and Bridget Bowman contributed. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.