The poisoning of Flint, Michigan, is a national disgrace - and some of the people reacting to it have been disgraceful. Here’s an abbreviated list, going from bad to worse:
Bill Ballenger, veteran Michigan Republican commentator
On the radio, Ballenger, a former state legislator, said, “This has been a vastly overblown crisis .... It’s just a crock.” In his estimation, the lead-laced water has only hurt “like, two to three percent of the population.”
The population of Flint is 100,000. So even if Ballenger’s math is correct (the guy is not a scientist), it means that he’s writing off 2,000 or 3,000 people as no big deal.
“I live [in Flint] half the week. I’ve been drinking the water consistently without a filter all during this past two years... and I have no effect from drinking the water,” Ballenger also said. “I had my blood tested just yesterday, and I have no elevated blood-lead level.”
Good for him. Hey, if one adult Republican pundit feels fine, how can there be a crisis?
Thing is, the Flint fiasco is really about the kids - and the science of kids. According to the medical stats, the share of kids with dangerous lead levels in their blood has nearly doubled since 2014, when the city - in a state-ordered effort to save money - switched from Detroit water to the Flint River.
The World Health Organization says that lead is particularly harmful to young children, and notes, “the neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”
Hence the problem with Ballenger’s remarks: An anti-science mentality is hazardous to public health.
L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of Oakland County, Mich.
It’s bad enough when a commentator spouts nonsense; it’s even worse when a prominent public official tries to give it credence.
Patterson is the elected leader in predominantly white Oakland County, a short car ride from predominantly minority Flint. At a luncheon the other day, Patterson cited Ballenger’s anecdotes (“he drinks the water, he showers in that water”) as evidence that the Flint crisis might be “a hoax,” and that it’s always important to consider the other side” of the story. “Let’s wait and see what the facts show,” Patterson said.
Unfortunately, there is no “other side,” unless one believes anti-science denial warrants equal status. But this is also coming from a man who wants to turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, “where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”
Dennis Muchmore, chief of staff to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder
In an email to his boss last September, when the crisis was at full boil, Muchmore crafted a phrase that will live long in the annals of government fecklessness:
“I can’t figure out why the state is responsible... “
Maybe it’s because the state - under a Snyder-appointed emergency manager - made the decision to use the Flint River as a cost-saving measure? Maybe because, even after the Flint City Council voted to go back to Detroit water, the Snyder-appointed manager said no dice?
By the way, the full quote from that email is even worse: “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that (state treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject.”
Oh well, “we’re not able to avoid the subject.” Or, as Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”
Marco Rubio, Florida Senator and Republican presidential candidate
Of all the candidates on the Republican trail this week, Rubio had the most fully articulated remarks about Flint. “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on,” Rubio said. “It’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of.”
There’s the party mentality in a nutshell. Since the woes of impoverished cities are rarely on Republican radar, why would briefers bother to “apprise” the candidates of a burgeoning health crisis?
“The truth is that Flint, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level, was never on the Republican agenda,” said Matt Latimer, a lifelong conservative Republican and former George W. Bush speechwriter. “ I don’t believe it’s impossible for conservatives to help a place like Flint. But first you have to show up.”
In the spirit of fiscal austerity, the Republican governor’s emergency manager switched Flint’s water because, over two years, it would save $5 million.
Care to guess the salary of Jim Harbaugh, the University of Michigan football coach over two years, paid by the taxpayer? $14 million.
Our society is defined by the choices we make. Just saying.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org