At last year’s State of the Union address, Flint Congressman Dan Kildee’s guest seat was unoccupied. It was left empty for Marine veteran Amir Hekmati of Flint, who has been held in an Iranian prison since August 29, 2011.
At tonight’s State of the Union speech, Kildee will once again use that guest seat to focus attention on Hekmati and the other Americans imprisoned in Iran. This time, Hekmati’s sister Sarah will fill the seat.
Kildee has been working on Hekmati’s behalf and calling for his release since he took office in 2013. He tells us that in recent negotiations, the Iranian government has shown “a willingness to engage that we haven’t seen until recently … but, you know, until he’s home, it’s hard to think about any of this as progress.”
Sarah will be joined tonight by her husband, Dr. Ramy Kurdi. Congressman Matt Salmon, R-AZ, offered to let Kurdi fill his guest seat in what Kildee calls “a nice gesture.”
“He’s a Republican person with whom I often find little agreement,” he says, “but in this case it’s one of those issues that sort of unites Democrats and Republicans, so I appreciate the fact that he did that.”
Kildee tells us that the couple has worked as a team in the effort to free Hekmati, and their presence tonight will serve to encourage the rest of Congress and the president to remain committed in their efforts to bring the American prisoners home and remind the Iranian government that their release will not be taken off the table.
“You have to continue to press over and over again, and if we allow these cases to fade into the woodwork, that’s the greatest danger these Americans face,” Kildee says. “Certainly the presence of Sarah and Ramy sends a message to the world, to the rest of Congress, but also underscores for the president that I’m not going to let go of this and he needs to continue to do everything he can.”
Flint water crisis
The past week has seen a burst of activity from Governor Snyder: the state of emergency, the renewed efforts to get water filters and bottled water to the people of Flint, and two news conferences with Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver.
Yet the governor has yet to ask for any assistance from federal agencies. Kildee tells us he’s asked Gov. Snyder why he hasn’t made that call, but has not received “any kind of an acceptable answer.”
“I have been incredibly disappointed with his management of this crisis,” he says, explaining that Snyder’s administration has known that lead was leeching into Flint’s water supply since July and has failed, “after all these months,” to take any substantive action to alleviate the situation.
According to Kildee, Snyder announced in his most recent press conference that he will appoint “yet another” interdepartmental committee to come up with a plan to solve Flint’s water crisis.
“It’s beyond my comprehension that he continues to treat this as a public relations problem rather than as a public health emergency. Meanwhile, kids in Flint are still being exposed to high levels of lead in the water,” Kildee says.
“I don’t know why he doesn’t just call the National Guard and have them send their water trucks to Flint. They work for him, he could do that. That would at least be a small but tangible step that shows that he’s interested in helping. I am just enormously frustrated by how passive he seems to be when it comes to the health of children in Flint. It’s just beyond my comprehension.”
Given Snyder’s former chef of staff’s communications with the Department of Environmental Quality expressing his belief that “this is a serious crisis and the people of Flint are being blown off,” Kildee tells us he has a hard time accepting that the governor was ignorant of the Flint water crisis until October.
“I unfortunately think what’s happening here is that the governor may be trying to create a set of facts or a narrative that excuses him for not having taken more decisive action until just now. Which, again, is treating this like a public relations problem, not like the public health crisis that it is.”
In our conversation above, Rep. Dan Kildee tells us more about Amir Hekmati, tonight's State of the Union address and the governor's response to the Flint water crisis.