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Ellison visits Flint as Democrats pressure Republicans to pass water-crisis relief bill

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Protestors demonstrated about the ongoing water crisis in Flint over the weekend; Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated in the city on Sunday.

Rep. Keith Ellison is angry about the lead water contamination crisis that has gripped Flint, Michigan, poisoning thousands of residents, including many children, over the course of nearly two years.

It’s somewhat personal for Ellison: The Democrat from Minnesota’s 5th District was born 70 miles down the road from Flint, in Detroit, and his parents lived there before he was born — his brother was even born there.

So it was a big day last Friday, when Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, traveled to Flint with a delegation of 25 Democratic lawmakers — including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — for a day the congressman branded as a “speak-out,” a chance for the group to listen to community leaders and city residents.

In an interview with MinnPost, Ellison said that Flint residents he spoke with were mainly frustrated with their governor, Republican Rick Snyder, and some state officials, for what they feel has been an inadequate response to the crisis.

But efforts to get relief from Congress have been frustrating, too — though Ellison believes that, with the proper pressure, that can change.

Bringing in the congressional cavalry

The event on Friday, Ellison said, was meant to show that “people do care.”

“I think it was very important from a learning perspective,” he added, “to talk to people, look them in the eye, and folks talked to us. I think they treated us pretty well. We came through because we have given the people our pledge to work to solve the problem, and they’re counting on us.”

The day’s events included being briefed at a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emergency command center, where Ellison says they discussed efforts to expand Medicaid to people who needed it in Flint.

Community leaders and residents then joined the lawmakers at Grace Emmanuel Baptist, a church in Flint, to speak with them and voice their concerns.

Ellison said the “sharp edge of the anger” that residents were feeling is directed at Snyder. The second-term Republican governor has received national scrutiny for his handling of the Flint crisis, including calls for his resignation, which he has rebuffed.

In response to the congressional visit, a Snyder spokesman told a Michigan paper that they are “glad such a large contingent of leaders is visiting from Congress today because the people of Flint need help from every level of government since every level of government let them down.”

What’s on the table for Congress

In Washington, Democratic members of Congress have publicly been very eager to showcase their proposals to provide relief to the people of Flint.

Democrats proposed a $600 million federal relief bill in January, the idea being that the city needs not only short-term relief — everything from cases of water to an overhaul of the city’s water infrastructure — but also federal help for the long-term public health impacts of lead poisoning.

Senate Republicans and Democrats negotiated down to a $220 million package, but on Monday, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee placed a hold on the legislation. He said he believes that Michigan has the resources and capacity to handle the entirety of the problem, and that Congress does not need to get involved.

Michigan officials, including Snyder, have backed a state aid package worth $230 million, but Democrats say more help is needed.

Lee and other Republicans in Congress argue that congressional Democrats are grandstanding on the city’s crisis, and want to use it as an election-year bludgeon against Republicans. Democrats acknowledge they’re being political with this: New York Rep. Steve Israel, a key Democratic campaign official, said the party will absolutely use it as an election-year issue. The party even hosted its most recent presidential debate last Sunday in Flint.

If Republicans don’t want to get slammed on the issue, Ellison says, then they should cooperate on relief efforts. “All [the Republicans] have to do to is [pass a bill] to solve the problem,” he said. “If they’re acting like they’re not going to work with us, we’re absolutely going to ram it down their throat — let people across the nation know who refused to help the people of Flint.”

Ellison said he and other Democrats have spoken to Republicans in the House who want to help craft a bipartisan approach to Flint relief. “A lot of Republicans are very empathetic, they want to do something about it. … The real question is, when the rubber hits the road, what’s gonna happen? Can your sympathy translate into a yes vote to help people in Flint?”

But the Minneapolis congressman bristled at the idea — suggested by some Republicans — that all the attention lavished on the crisis in this Michigan town is fleeting, and political in nature.

“In the past, whenever there was a storm, or hurricane, or flood, Americans would step up and help,” Ellison said. “If there’s a disaster, you deal with the disaster. You talk about who’s politicizing the catastrophe, I’d say it’s them.

“Every one of us who went down there is going to take the message back to colleagues. It’s not a one-and-done. People get compassion fatigue, but the problems aren’t going away overnight.”

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Comments (8)

Political?

With all due respect to Rep. Ellison, the attention paid to Flint is political. It should be. What we are seeing is the inevitable result of a hands-off, small government approach to governance. The country should understand what they are in for once government is "drowned in the bathtub."

The Flint/Detroit area has

The Flint/Detroit area has been ravaged by Democratic controlled governance for the past 50 years. I guess the hands-ON, huge government approach didn't work for them.

You Overlooked One Point

The governance of Flint has been in the hands of an "Emergency Manager" appointed by Republican Governor Snyder since 2011. The manager returned limited powers to the elected city government early this year.

The water system was switched from Lake Huron (the source of Flint's water under the Democratic controlled governance) to the Flint River in 2014, when the city was under the hands-ON control of the emergency manager.

Start providing

Sources for your comments. A republican governor has set up this fiasco.

Fiscal Responsibility

Rather than spend $13 billion on yet another aircraft carrier that the Navy doesn't even want, how about spending the money on fixing up the ailing water systems around the country? The expenditure would be a great jobs bill, which is all the carrier is in the first place, and it would directly benefit a heck of a lot more people.

Relative importance

It is a great idea the only problem is that military contractors are more important than black kids in our country.

Another boondoggle trip for Ellison

Ellison found another opportunity to take another boondoggle trip at taxpayer expense and do some grand standing.

Yes the emergency managers made some very bad mistakes, but we should not ignore why they were there in the first place

Why was the governor FORCED to appoint an emergency manager? Because the local politicians that the people of Flint elected, ran it into the ground financially. Not once but twice in 2002 and 2011.

The local politicians chose to use lead pipe when they built Flint's water system. The local politicians chose not to raise taxes to pay to replace the lead pipe.

If the people of Flint had elected politicians that were financially responsible none of this would have happened.

Boondoggle?

Please provide the source for your claim that Rep. Ellison's trip was "at taxpayer expense."

Flint is in decline because the automotive industry has, for whatever reason, left the city. Once upon a time it was a thriving blue collar suburb with solid finances. The elected officials are not responsible for GM's decision to move its production elsewhere.

The water in Flint is poisonous because the emergency managers chose to switch the source of the city's water.