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.”