EVER since I became a conservative as a teenager growing up in the city of Flint, Mich., I’ve heard again and again from Republican leaders about their commitment to minorities and the poor. Even today, we are told that conservative solutions exist for persistent poverty, for joblessness, for the masses of people, like those in my hometown, who live lives of quiet despair. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been especially eloquent on this point. If only Republicans would get a chance to prove it.
That chance has arrived in a big way. Unfortunately, my party is not taking it.
For those not following this news — that is, largely my fellow conservatives — my hometown has been poisoned. For the last 18 months, the city’s water supply has been contaminated with lead and iron. This was the result of a decision to use the Flint River for the city’s drinking water until the city could hook up to a new water authority.
What began coming out of the tap was brown and smelled and caused some people to lose their hair or break out in rashes. Flint River water was so corrosive that it was leaching away lead in older pipes and contaminating the water. The health consequences of this may affect children, in particular, for the rest of their lives.
But very few people outside Flint cared, including the elected officials and public employees who, as part of their jobs, were supposed to care. Paid to care.
On Tuesday, Rick Snyder, the state’s Republican governor, acknowledged that his government had “failed” the city’s nearly 100,000 residents. That is an understatement. His appointed task force reported late last month that the state’s environmental agency had responded to those who tried to bring attention to this unfolding tragedy with a “persistent tone of scorn and derision.”No surprise there. Nobody has ever wanted to hear about what was happening in Flint.
This is not just any town but one of Michigan’s largest. The location of one of the first sit-down strikes in the United States. The once proud home of General Motors. And it was where I was born and went to school.
My memories of growing up in that sad-sack town in the 1980s are vivid. Living near notorious drug houses. Being mugged for a bottle of soda when I was 12. Being stopped by the police at 16 because they couldn’t believe a white person lived in my neighborhood. Even back then, Flint was considered one of the worst major cities in America.
In the decades since, nothing has seemed to go right. Because nothing has gone right. General Motors, the city’s leading employer, left. Schools closed and crumbled. Most major grocery stores departed. Houses collapsed, as if the earth was slowly swallowing up the town.
We had the nation’s highest arson rate and could afford only one full-time arson inspector. The city has long been listed among the nation’s most violent. There were divisive recall elections and new mayors — almost all of them Democrats — were ushered in with new promises.
But the Republicans were never there, until 2011, that is, when the first of four state-appointed emergency managers was brought in by the Snyder administration to address the city’s financial woes. The water switch was intended to save $5 million over two years. But even after residents complained about the water, and even after the City Council voted to switch back to Detroit for its water, the Snyder-appointed manager said no.
The truth is that Flint, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level, was never on the Republican agenda. Even now, when thousands of children subsist in a city that is toxic, this remains true.
But the Democrats are there — for better or worse, they’ve always been there.
In the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton discussed Flint’s plight in a nationally televised debate. Bernie Sanders has called for Mr. Snyder’s resignation. President Obama has declared a state of emergency, a trigger for federal aid. There were rallies involving the usual suspects — Jesse Jackson, the filmmaker Michael Moore and others.
Flint was not mentioned in the last Republican debate. Though Ben Carson, a Detroit native, on Tuesday blamed local Flint officials for the troubles, unless I missed them, no tweets in solidarity have been issued from other Republican contenders. “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on” was the best Marco Rubio could say when asked about the devastation of this American city.
This is the Republicans’ chance to show their worth — the chance our leaders have said they always wanted. Why haven’t they been here over the decades, running serious candidates, supporting federal aid for the city, championing pilot projects that might show what a conservative approach to urban areas might do? Why aren’t they in Flint today, shipping in water bottles and holding fund-raisers for kids now condemned to lowered expectations because their brains were poisoned by lead?
It cannot be, as the left would tell us, because Flint has a large African-American population. Or that the city has always been a Democratic stronghold. That’s exactly a place Republicans should target.
I think it’s because they are used to staying away. The party is accustomed to talking about policies and ideas to help urban America and then implementing them in safe, Republican-friendly areas like Idaho or Arizona. It’s not easy to go to a place where nobody knows you or likes you. It’s not easy to make change.
I do not for a moment question the sincerity of those voices in the party who call for a new approach to persistent poverty or who seek to welcome African-Americans and others into the fold. I don’t believe it’s impossible for conservatives to help a place like Flint. But first you have to show up.