How Poisoned Water Brought Democrats and Republicans Together

Flint lawmaker talks cross-aisle friendships, maintaining sense of urgency after spotlight dims

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., shares a rare bi-partisan friendship with John Moolenaar, R-Mich., left, that involves an annual sandwich exchange. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Partisan politics dominate headlines today — including at RollCall.com. Our readers want to learn more about cooperation, bipartisanship and what is not broken in Washington. This story is the first in a series on legislators and their staffs figuring out how to make things work.

Dan Kildee, a Democrat with leadership aspirations, was about to leave the House floor when a Republican colleague pulled him aside with an earnest question: How was the water in Flint?

It’s complicated. Despite miles of replaced pipes, people are still waiting in long lines for bottled water.

It’s a question Kildee says he gets at least once a day from colleagues on both sides of the aisle even now, three years after the water crisis in Kildee’s Michigan hometown propelled him into the national media spotlight.

This time, it was Kildee’s colleague, Doug LaMalfa of California, you know, he said, “big guy with a beard, wears cowboy boots.”

Still, in today’s Washington, that place where nothing gets done because nobody forges personal relationships with the other side, such exchanges count as a remarkable example of bipartisanship. Kildee knows they have political capital.

If it wasn’t for Republican support, he said, the House would have never approved a measure in 2016 to spend $170 million to replace Flint’s water pipes and help the city through the early days of the crisis — that measure passed with the support of 101 Republicans.

It has been Kildee’s challenge to maintain the bipartisan spirit as the daily struggle of Flint residents recedes from public view, even as people there still line up for hours for free bottles of water. Kildee says he has made a point of recasting the issue as a national problem that cuts across party lines.

That requires talking to people on the other side of the aisle — something Kildee has done in part by literally calling for a pound of flesh from a Republican he counts as a personal friend.

We sat down with him recently to get his take on keeping a waning issue in the national conversation and making cross-aisle friendships. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: How do you manage to keep an issue like Flint in the spotlight?

A: What we really try to do is explain that this is not the story of one town and one mistake, and this little anomaly that we can get through. But it’s a big warning. Raising the issue of Flint is not important just to make sure the people of Flint get the justice that they deserve, but also to make the point that there are going to be a whole lot of Flint, Michigans if  we don’t get it right in this country and start making the investments that we need to make. That rings much louder than the story of one town.

Q: How does that apply to other issues, in your experience?

A: Flint is a really poor community that has had a really hard time connecting to the new economy and, in that case it’s like a lot of places... In a lot of other communities there are sort of these silent crises that are taking place all the time. Kids that go to schools that have textbooks that are out of date, that don’t have access to internet, that don’t have parks that are mowed in their neighborhoods. Those stories don’t make headlines, but they’re just another manifestation of the underlying problem, we have a whole subset of American cities that are just being left behind. They have not experienced any growth during periods of economic growth. And they’ve lost trust in the institution of government.

Q: I would imagine that the danger there is that, with Flint, as soon as people start trusting the water from their faucets again the response might be, ‘OK, problem solved, time to go away.’ How do you respond to that?

A: This is not just about water. And it would be a shame if somehow the story of Flint, in retrospect, was about a mistake in the water system and not the real story, that is the state government, and for that matter the federal government, dismissed the interests of this community and accepted the fact that they were being ignored and overlooked until the science was just too much to take.

Q: You worked with Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Speaker Ryan to get the aid package passed when it was a crisis, when it was all about the water. Now that you are expanding that and talking about infrastructure, how do you maintain that level of collegiality and interest on the other side of the aisle?

A: It was hard enough for me to get help for Flint in the crisis … It was a combination of explaining clearly that there was some federal responsibility for this … But the other [thing] is, to draw on the relationships that I think too few people in this place develop across the aisle.

I mean, I consider some of the folks that I work with, even though I think they are wrong on a lot of issues, I consider them to be colleagues, and some of them are friends. And I went to Fred, I went to John Moolenaar R-Mich., and said, ‘I need help, and this isn’t going to happen with just Democrats.’ And the fact that, you know, we have been able to work together on other things in the past made it easier for me to go to them.

Q: Do you see any Republicans socially?John Moolenaar and I are, I would say, friends. Every year we have a bet over the congressional baseball game… if the Republicans win, I have to deliver to him some Flint Coney Islands. But I’ve only had to do that once because we only lost once. And he has to deliver to me a BLT sandwich from Tony’s. It’s this restaurant right on the line of our two districts, and they use literally a pound of bacon in this one sandwich. It’s a ridiculous thing.

Q: There does seem to be a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats in how to approach some of the bigger picture problems that you are talking about. Democrats are still talking about federal investment in infrastructure. And Republicans are talking about pushing [a lot of] it to municipalities. How do you see that playing out in Flint and do you see any middle ground there?

A: Even if we start with sort of a more conventional federal approach where the federal government puts up, say, 80 percent of the money for infrastructure projects, there has got to be some recognition that these left-behind communities, urban and rural, have to get some additional help because they are never going to come up with 20 percent match for the kind of infrastructure improvements that need to be made to make them competitive. I think that’s an area where typically we think, ‘Now this is going to come down to Democrat versus Republican, urban versus rural,’ when the truth is there are communities that need extra help that have high rates of poverty that span the political spectrum.

Q:  How did the Flint crisis raise your profile with the Democratic party, and what do you see as the future for the party?

A: I have really strong views but that doesn’t mean that I can’t work with other people. I worked with Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and … Dave Trott, R-Mich., on a bump stock bill, and we just sat right here in this office, four of us, two Dems and two Republicans, and really negotiated what I thought was a pretty good bill. Of course, the NRA decided to stop it, but we would have passed that bill. I think that’s the approach we’ve got to take. We can solve these problems. Where we agree we should be willing to agree and were we don’t, let’s submit the ideas to the legislative process and accept the outcome and live to fight another day.

Q: How has the water crisis in Flint changed your perspective on the power of bipartisanship?

A: It was a real, live case of having to work in a bipartisan fashion to solve what, at least for my community, was the biggest problem they have ever faced ... In the case of Flint, it was never going to be good enough just to be on the right side. We actually had to get something done. And too much of the focus around this place is just for people to carve out a position and be on the right side but never get to a resolution. I couldn’t accept that. I can’t go back home and say, ‘Hey look, I’m on your side. I have to go back home and say, ‘We’re here to help. And here’s the help.’ And so I think in some ways that crisis because it was right in front of everybody, helped show that this place can work. It did.

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