Governor Snyder: You Were Not Hired to Be Jerry Lewis

On Tuesday, self-described wonk Rick Snyder used much of his State of the State speech to take responsibility for poisoning Flint’s children. Though by the end of the week, Snyder was limiting the extent of his responsibility because the “experts” didn’t exercise “common sense.” (See video here.)

“The department people, the heads, were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts, and I use that word with great trial and tribulation because they were considered experts in terms of their background, these are career civil servants that had strong science, medical backgrounds in terms of their research,” Snyder said. “But as a practical matter, when you look at it today and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore.”


This is something that we don’t consider just what one person did, let’s look at the entire cultural background of how people have been operating,” Snyder said. “Let’s get in there and rebuild the culture that understands common sense has to be part of it, taking care of our citizens has to be part of it.”


The Republican governor added: “What’s so frustrating and makes you so angry about this situation is you have a handful of quote-unquote experts who were career service people that made terrible decisions in my view and we have to live with the consequences with that. They work for me, so I accept that responsibility.”

It’s a very curious argument for a guy who — still! — gets treated as someone who puts policy over ideology, in spite of the years of serving as Dick DeVos’ puppet approving of bad policy over and over.  (In the same appearance, Snyder took credit for things President Obama’s Administration has given to Flint, including Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, but that’s a long-standing schtick of this governor.) Effectively, a guy whose entire political gimmick is that he relies on experts is now saying those damned experts didn’t exercise enough common sense.

Yes, Governor. The experts did not exercise enough common sense.

But something else Snyder did this week drives me even crazier than his equivocation over wonkdom, just as it became clear his particular approach to policy — especially his insistence that emergency managers can fix the pervasive problems of Michigan’s cities — had poisoned Flint’s children.

Rick Snyder channeled Jerry Lewis, the telethon guy.

In the middle of his speech — and in his website dedicated to this issue — Snyder solicited donations.

If you’d also like to aid Flint, please go to to volunteer or donate. If you are a Flint resident who needs help getting the water you need, go to

Hell, Snyder’s not even as competent as Jerry Lewis! Because while two of the links Snyder includes on his site go to sites dedicated to helping the people of Flint deal with this crisis — one to Greater Flint’s Community Foundation and the other to a United Way fund specifically set up to benefit Flint — Snyder’s third donate link goes to the Red Cross’ general SE MI site, such that any funds donated might go to other entirely worthy causes but not Flint.

Anyway, here’s why this has been bothering me all week.

First of all, Rick Snyder is worth something like $200 million, and while he returns his gubernatorial salary, he brings in around $1.9 million a year. So this is a guy making making $36,500 a week asking people who (using the Michigan average household, not individual, income) $48,500 a year to donate to help Flint. Your average Michigan household is doing almost twice as well as your average Flint household (average $25,000 a year) — so it is certainly within their charitable ability to help their fellow Michigander. But clearly the kinds of donations that Rick Snyder could afford would go much further to helping Flint than the kind of donations most Michiganders could afford.

But here’s the more galling thing.

We got into this position because Michigan (under a Democrat, originally, but expanded under Snyder, than reinforced after voters of Michigan rejected that approach) has decided to deal with the ills of its cities a certain way. Not only doesn’t the state help out, it instead has shifted revenue sharing away from cities, which has created fiscal emergencies in many of them, which Snyder has then used to bring in state appointed “experts” to dictate to the locals what to do. The measure of those outsiders is always “fiscal responsibility,” not overall well-being or even fiscal sustainability (or what some people might call “common sense”). The result is that — with the possible except of Detroit (though even there, the human cost has been breathtaking) — city after city sells common property off and takes away services, including things like policing and … clean water  … as a way to meet those fiscal responsibility goals. Many of the cities so treated — Flint is one of but not the only archetype — keep having serial emergencies without any solutions to the underlying problems of disinvestment and segregation.

It was only a matter of time before the state’s emergency managers started doing real damage to the people living in the cities as a result (and the damage Snyder’s serially experimenting and corrupt state-led schooling replacement has been at least as bad).

From my understanding, Michigan has decided to approach its cities this way for two reasons. First, segregation: Michigan is a badly segregated state (though on that count, Flint is nowhere near as bad as many cities in Michigan). And for too long, Michigan’s politicians — Democratic and Republican — have shied away from from sharing state resources broadly, for either services or schooling, which has meant that as white flight left cities without revenue bases and as globalization hit Michigan more generally, those cities spiraled downward. Quite simply, the state wouldn’t do what Snyder wants to Michiganders to do informally, share between the more fortunate and the less fortunate.

How bizarre is that?!?! That Snyder thinks we more fortunate Michiganders should share with the less fortunate (we should!!), but he won’t use policy to make it happen?!?!? Effectively, he is suggesting the well-being of some of the state’s children should be at the whim of charity, not government policy.

But the other reason Snyder pushed through his initial emergency manager law and then re-upped it after voters rejected it is to enable certain kinds of policy outcomes. The best known of those is the breaking of the unions and with it the slashing of both wages and pensions that used to provide a middle class living for many public servants. But in some cases, the ability to have an appointed manager make decisions based solely on economic responsibility has made it easier to loot those cities, a golf course here, an art museum there, much of a downtown there. And both the ideological outcome — busting the unions — and the looting  have beneficiaries, people like Dick DeVos (net worth $6.9 billion, and whose ideological goals Snyder has placed ahead of Michigan’s well-being) and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert (net worth $3.7 billion). Gilbert, in particular, has benefitted coming and going, as he got to influence how properties, including foreclosures his own company owned in Detroit, got dealt with.

And of course, Snyder pushed his expanded emergency manager approach to solving the problems of cities like Flint even while he was cutting taxes for businesses like DeVos’ Amway and Gilbert’s Quicken.

So, even at a moment when his preferred approach to dealing with real problems of a manufacturing state like Michigan resulted in the poisoning of Flint’s children, Snyder was calling for charity rather than demanding that the policy of the state ask its billionaires to invest in cities rather than looting them. (It’s important to note Grand Rapids is better off than almost any other Michigan city in two ways: it is not majority African American, and it benefits handsomely from Meijer,  DeVos and fellow Amway billionaire Van Andel family investments in the city, giving us access to arts and sports opportunities most cities of our size would not have).

Which brings me to one thus far enduring mystery about the Flint crisis.

There was one moment during this crisis when Snyder asked his rich beneficiaries to pony up some charity rather than asking the middle class.

Last year, at a time when the State acknowledged there were probable carcinogens in Flint’s water but still maintained any lead in the water reflect normal seasonal variation (!!), Snyder brokered the donation by a still unnamed corporation of 1,500 water filters to some faith leaders in Flint.

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, confirmed that the filters, distributed by the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, came from a “corporate donor that does not wish to be recognized but cares deeply about the community.”

The donor “worked with the governor to provide 1,500 faucet filters to be distributed to city homes,” Murray said in an email.

The state’s involvement in the filter distribution was never publicized and pastors told The Flint Journal-MLive Tuesday, Sept. 29, that they were asked by staffers in the governor’s office not to speak about it.


“Those filters came from the governor,” Poplar said. “The governor seems to be the one with the golden key” to make something happen, she said.

Pastors involved with the giveaway of the filters, which were designed to remove total trihalomethanes (TTHM) as well as lead from water, said they accepted the condition that they not discuss the state’s role in securing the equipment, said the Rev. Allen Overton.

Overton and the Rev. Alfred Harris said they thought the arrangement was odd, but did not want to jeopardize receiving the water filters, which Flint residents waited in line for and which were given away in just three hours.

Now, the most likely corporate donor, both because of its potential liability for the fouling of the Flint River and because it obviously was testing the water the city of Flint was releasing, would be GM. Though that doesn’t seem to match the redactions in the emails released earlier this week. (See PDF 65)

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But I find it remarkable that the only time Snyder has actually asked any big money entities to donate in this affair was at a time when he was trying to make it all go away by shutting up the activists and leading a small portion of residents to feel better about the taste and appearance (though not necessarily the content) of their water.

That donation, like Snyder’s appeal for a sense of common good not backed by actual policy, was all show.

24 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thanks very much for this.

    Capitalism, let alone unregulated capitalism, is not a substitute for democracy. Nor are charitable donations – optional and tax deductible – a substitute for government policy or responsibility. The wealthy prefer optional donations in lieu of paying taxes – not deductible – that might go toward ends deemed undesirable by a donor.

    Mr. Snyder is part of that wealth elite, which thinks that the most important job skill is never being insubordinate [to one’s boss, in an employment context, and to the elite in general, in a political context]. Support that can be taken away at a whim, instead of being institutionalized and a right, helps people learn that important skill.

  2. orionATL says:

    it is very interesting to see a state’s politics detailed, and here at emptywheel.

    michigan state government does not seem to be taking real good care of its citizens, certainly not in flint. i’d bet flint is the tip of an iceberg of indifference and mismanagement. but michigan is not alone.

    there is in american politics these days a complete disjunct between what government does and what citizens badly need in terms of economic and family security, or might want as amenities. that is the case in harney county, oregon, apparently in flint, likely among addicts in indiana and new hampshire, and likely in mississippi with its high rate of infant deaths and teen pregnancies.

    you can look where you want to for explanations. i look at three:

    – a loss of economic opportunity (jobs) that seems to have occurred over the last four decades in communities across the nation, many of which were never all that prosperous to begin with.

    – the disconnect caused by television. there often are extraordinary differences between the governing behavior portrayed in a political ad (pro or con, executive or legislative) and the actual behavior in programs, bills, and votes of the politician in question.

    – voter turnout. voter turnout is very rarely even half of eligible voters and can be much lower than that. various vote-denying schemes have a place here and teevee ad fatigue might play a part, but i suspect there’s more to the problem than that.

    in michigan in 2014:

    [… Voter turnout

    Political scientist Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project studied voter turnout in the 2014 election by looking at the percentage of eligible voters who headed to the polls. McDonald used voting-eligible population (VEP), or the number of eligible voters independent of their current registration status, to calculate turnout rates in each state on November 4. He also incorporated ballots cast for the highest office in each state into his calculation. He estimated that 81,687,059 ballots were cast in the 50 states plus theDistrict of Columbia, representing 35.9 percent of the VEP.[22] By comparison, 61.6 percent of VEP voted in the 2008 presidential election and 58.2 percent of VEP voted in the 2012 presidential election.[23]

    Quick facts

    According to PBS Newshour, voter turnout in the 2014 midterms was the lowest since the 1942 midterms, which took place during the nation’s involvement in World War II.[24]Forty-three states and the District of Columbia failed to surpass 50 percent turnout in McDonald’s analysis.The three states with the lowest turnout according to McDonald’s analysis were Texas (28.3 percent), Tennessee (28.6 percent) and Indiana (28.8 percent).Maine (58.5 percent), Wisconsin (56.5 percent) and Colorado (54.5 percent) were the three states with the highest turnout.There were only 12 states that increased voter turnout in 2014 compared to the 2010 midterm elections.[25]

    voter turnout in michigan for the 2014 gubernatorial election was ~3.2 mill voters or ~45%
    of the “voter eligible population”. **

    where i live though, there is another factor that hurts cities, a rural-city split that seems unbridgeable. part of this is a racial heritage matter and part is racial caging and vote denial, but part also seems bound up in some sort of contempt for cities. transportation and education suffer especially from this prejudice. it does no good to point out that this might be unwise “rural” thinking given that the cities are both engines of any serious economic growth and customers for the agricultural outlands. but the pattern is set and has not been reversed in my time here.


  3. orionATL says:

    my, my. here’s some very useful history of the conflict:


    • orionATL says:

      from the huffington post article in #3 we can fix the beginning date and causes of the flint water crisis:

      1) “… Then the Detroit system, from which the city had been buying its water for nearly 50 years, notified Flint and the surrounding Genesee County that it would be cutting off their service in the spring of 2014…. ”

      2) who to then buy water from? a new government entity, the karegnondi water authority, was formed

      “…. As for the decision to join the KWA, it was made even before Flint’s elected leaders voted — by the emergency manager Snyder had appointed to run Flint’s affairs because the city was broke. The manager had total control over the city’s government and the council only got to weigh in because the director of the new water authority insisted.

      “I said, ‘I will not accept that,'” Karegnondi CEO Jeff Wright recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I do require a decision of this magnitude to be voted on by the elected representatives of the people…”

      for more background see also:


      3) but the new pipeline from lake huron was going to take time to build. in the interim, flint decided to go with water from the flint river.

      “… In March 2014, the KWA put out to market $220 million in bonds with excellent ratings from the credit rating agencies putting interest rates to about 5% or lower.[fj 25] The City of Flint began its temporary use of Flint Riverwater as its primary source of drinking water on April 25, 2014[11] while Genesee County continued to purchase from Detroit water.[fj 28]… ”

      so now we are at the point culpability “studies” :) can begin. and negligence, too as far as i am concerned.

      • orionATL says:

        i suspect water supply professionals are pretty concientious and pretty proud. so first order of business in understanding what then transpired is – what did these guys and gals say about having to treat flint river water until it was potable?

        or were there any water professionals left in flint government at the time the city reactivated its old flint river intake station?

        if not, there must have been a contractor, right?

        what advice did the city receive on treatment of flint river water?

      • orionATL says:

        important corrections and ammendments to guardian in #4 included:
        [… When questioned about Croft’s accusation in October, Sara Wurfel, Snyder’s spokeswoman at the time, offered up the false claim that the governor could not have made the decision to use the river because the city had been kicked off of Detroit’s system.

        “The Detroit Water and Sewer Department at the time, back last spring, said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna cut you off.’”

        This is a lie.

        In a letter obtained by the ACLU of Michigan (PDF), emergency manager Darnell Earley wrote to DWSD in March 2014:

        “Thank you for the correspondence that provides Flint the option of continuing to purchase water from the city of Detroit. … The City of Flint has actively pursued the Flint River as a temporary water source… There will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014.”

        Snyder did not mention this letter in the history of the Flint water crisis that he presented in his State of the State address last week.

        “First, the crisis began in spring 2013, when the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to buy water from Karegondi Water Authority [to be supplied by Lake Huron]. Former Flint Mayor Walling supported the move, and the Emergency Manager approved the plan. DWSD provided notice of termination to be effective one-year later and, on April 25, 2014, Flint began using water from the Flint River as its interim source.”

        Detroit did terminate a 50-year contract but it also diligently tried to strike a new deal to keep selling Flint clean, safe water. Earley rejected all offers and then sent that “thanks but no thanks” letter to Detroit saying that the decision had been made to use the Flint River.

        If the governor really wants to come clean he needs to start telling the whole truth, not just convenient pieces of it…]

        it is beginning to look as if governor snyder himself may have micromanaged a slew of bad decisions affecting michigan cities. he may have been another inexperienced, arrogant, political executive. he was, after all, completely inexperienced in that realm (think barrack obama and only slightly less so, george bush).

        • orionATL says:

          this is beginning to sound like the handy work of the rightwing shadow advisory group State Policy Network.

          • orionATL says:

            if so, that would be what snyder is hiding in refusing to release all of 2010-2013 correspondence.

            essentialy a conspiracy to privatize.

  4. Teddy says:

    Well, Jeb! says Snyder’s shown real leadership in this crisis and has done a great job. That must be good enough for somebody, or I don’t think he would have said it.

    Heckuva job, Ricky!

  5. orionATL says:

    flint, mich population

    +100,000 population

    median income ~ $25,000. that’s below poverty isn’t it.

    average home value ~ $50,000.

    # of housing units 51,000. that’s a lot of filters and plumbing to worry about.

    57% black, 37% white. racial composition.

    funny thing about a fresh water, drinking water crisis in michigan. the state looks like it has as much fresh water shoreline as florida or texas have salt water shoreline.

  6. orionATL says:

    there are news stories of severe skin rashes and hair falling out. i wonder how widespread this is.

    lead poisoning is the critical issue now, but, given residents reporting of severe hair loss and skin rash problems, i would want to know what industrial or agricultural chemicals were in the flint river water. these symptoms really are signature symptoms for chemical exposure. i wouldn’t trust the explanation to “oh, it’s just rusty water.”

  7. orionATL says:

    gov snyder was executive vice president of gateway computer company, the company that worked to make desktop computers more accessible. his tenure coincided with the collapse of the company, not that he would have had anything to do with that.

    one might think time spent working as a senior official in a consumer-oriented company would predispose gov snyder toward a consumer approach to constituents. apparently not.

  8. seedeevee says:

    “(It’s important to note Grand Rapids is better off than almost any other Michigan city in two ways: it is not majority African American, and it benefits handsomely from Meijer, DeVos and fellow Amway billionaire Van Andel family investments in the city, giving us access to arts and sports opportunities most cities of our size would not have).”

    That first way in being “better off” sure doesn’t read like I think you meant it to.

  9. orionATL says:

    there have been four emergency administrators for flint since 2010. why the high turnover? or was that considered high? hard to get to know people and problems.

    all the focus is on lead dangers and on bureaucratic indifference to and incompetence as explanations for failure to recognize the problem wt the beginning. but this “explanation” feels a bit too pat. and it avoids any odor of coverup.

    it just seems inconceivable to me that this day and time with decades of concern about drinking water quality for cities behind us, that there would not have been water quality employees or consultants at the city level and the state dept of environmental quality level who would immediately have either known outright or insisted on testing for problems with the city using flint river water. that would have been a no-brainer for any water quality professional. but now we are supposed to believe that only citizen activism and the efforts of engineering specialists at virginia tech university belatedly uncovered the problem.

    if there were no city or state experts on staff and no consultants were hired, that’s negligence.

    if there were city and state experts or consultants available but their advice was ignored, the question becomes to what end with what penalty?

    nowhere in all this uproar have i seen statements by water system supply experts. only the va tech academic experts have weighed.

    the va tech experts dealt with a similar lead problem in d. c. in 2004. there have been other similar problems in the interim, including two in michigan. is it really possible that neither state nor city employees knew about the likelihood of lead issues in flint? i think not.

    so why the initial suppressing of professional concern at city and state level?

  10. orionATL says:

    in 2013 the flint city deficit was $13 mill. what didn’t the state just cover that? it’s not a huge amount.

    • orionATL says:

      look to the rightwing kochsucker organization State Policy Network for any involvement in privitization of such as water supply, transportation, prisons, and schools.

      they advise governor’s directly as a kind of shadow cabinet. this is beginning to smell like it could be their advisory handiwork.

    • wayoutwest says:

      The wiki history of this conflict and crisis shows a different picture of events that led to this outcome. The Flint city council made the decision to end the DWSD contract and source their water from the new KWA pipeline and the DWSD was responsible for Flint needing to use the Flint river because they cut off their delivery of water to them before the new pipeline was completed.

      The governor and emergency administrator finalized the decision but it was Flint’s elected leaders who proposed and ratified the plan.

      It’s also interesting that over 2% of Flint’s residents were already subjected to lead poisoning before the water switch.

  11. Anon says:

    Effectively, he is suggesting the well-being of some of the state’s children should be at the whim of charity, not government policy.

    Sad as it makes me to say this, this is not an effective suggestion but an explicit worldview. You can see the same thing in Paul Ryan’s “plans” for public health and government overhaul, as well as basically everything being offered by Republicans, Libertarians, and many Democrats.
    In effect they proceed from the base assumption that individuals, not government, should be directing monetary flow, therefore we should not use policy to achieve this, only telethons. This is a deliberate worldview that is so deeply entrenched that I doubt you could even get Snyder to acknowledge that there is another way. Certainly Paul Ryan seems determined to argue that we can and should devolve all social spending to unspecified charities despite all evidence to the contrary.
    This base view is supported in part because it is intuitively appealing, especially if you view the government as an alien thing descended from Kenya rather than an organization of the people. It is also attractive because it lets you lower taxes and support people that look like you rather than freeloaders somewhere else.
    The fact that this worldview helps the rich get richer is purely accidental.

  12. GKJames says:

    Isn’t it also a mystery how/why Snyder gets enough votes to be elected? He clearly has been selling a version of the social contract that many, not just the billionaires, have been content to buy. What are Michigan progressives doing to counter this?

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