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Water is the main issue in next week's mayor's race in Flint

Oct 27, 2015

Flint’s problem-plagued drinking water is expected to play a significant role in next week’s election for mayor. 

Flint residents have been complaining for more than a year about the quality of their city's drinking water. Next month, many voters say they will cast their votes for mayor with those problems in mind.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

For more than a year, people in Flint have been holding protests about the city’s tap water.  

“There’s some people in Flint, Michigan who don’t believe this water is safe,” Pastor Alfred Harris told a crowd at one protest at Flint city hall a few months back. 

Along with complaints about rising lead levels and other problems, many have been calling for changes at city hall.

“It’s time for us to stand up…speak up and tell this mayor to get out of town,” Pastor Alan Overton urged the crowd at that same rally.

That’s not what a man running for re-election wants to hear.  

Dayne Walling has been Flint’s mayor for six years.    He’s on the ballot again next week. 

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling is seeking his third term. But complaints about the city's water may cost him votes in next week's election.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Walling’s drawn the wrath of many people in Flint for his highly visible role in the city’s switch from Detroit water to the Flint River back in April of 2014. Walling pushed the button making the switch happen and later toasted with other city officials at Flint’s water plant. He also repeatedly told Flint residents their tap water was “safe to drink.” 

It turns out it wasn’t. 

Walling now blames state and federal agencies for misleading him.

“None of what happened over the last 18 months should have took place,” Walling says, “The water didn’t meet the standards, because the MDEQ wasn’t even applying the standards.  So yes, I feel…used.”

Tests have shown high lead levels in the drinking water in some people’s homes and in the blood of many Flint children. Researchers believe the highly corrosive Flint River water is to blame. They claim the water is leeching lead from pipes.

Walling says this issue is “personal” to him, since he and his family were among those in Flint drinking the water. 

He blames state appointed emergency managers for the switch to the Flint River.    

Mayor Walling says he’s pushing the governor’s office to come up with tens of millions of dollars to repair the damage done to the city’s pipes. 

But that might not be enough to convince Flint voters to separate Walling from the decision to switch away from Detroit water.

Just down the street from city hall, a campaign worker for Walling’s opponent in next week’s election was recently busy working the phones.

Karen Weaver has made fixing Flint's drinking water problems a key plank in her campaign platform
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“Good Morning, I’m calling from Friends of Karen Weaver,” the woman would say as she left a message, “This is a friendly reminder call to thank you for supporting and voting for Karen Weaver in the coming November 3rd election.”

This is Karen Weaver’s first run for elected office. The Flint businesswoman emerged from a four person field to win a spot in next week’s general election.

Flint’s water problems have become the main focus of her campaign to unseat Walling. 

Weaver says the mayor shouldn’t blame the city’s water problems exclusively on emergency managers appointed by the governor.

“If everything was the emergency manager, why didn’t you say that before?” asks Karen Weaver, “Why didn’t you say this wasn’t my idea before.  But now all of a sudden you want to say what you think you need to say to get elected.”

Weaver says Walling has also failed to address the city’s crime and economic problems during his six years as mayor.    

Weaver says she will do things differently if voters elect her next week.

For his part, Walling has repeatedly questioned Weaver's experience and her understanding of how government works.

Walling defends his record on crime, pointing to a decline in overall crime and more investment in downtown Flint and in other parts of the city.

Paul Rozycki is a professor emeritus at Mott Community College in Flint.  

The long-time local political scientist says, despite the many issues facing Flint, water is the issue on voters’ minds, and that’s not good for Mayor Walling.

“He’s taking heat for the water,” says Rozycki. “Every time I go to a public forum, the first thing he gets beat up on is the water issue.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Walling was the one to announce that Flint had reconnected to Detroit water.  The switch took place less than two weeks after Walling stood next to Gov. Snyder to announce a $12 million dollar plan to disconnect the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. 

But challenger Karen Weaver hopes voters won’t forget the 18 month experiment with the Flint River and that it happened during Mayor Walling’s watch.

“I hope people don’t say ‘Oh well, he’s done what he needs to do now…so everything’s OK’ because it’s not,” says Weaver. “Because this was a person who did not speak up for us. This was a person who was not honest with us.”

Despite it all, Dayne Walling expects to win a third term as Flint mayor next week, though he predicts the election will be close.

“I’m in the fight.  And I’m not going to stop fighting until it’s won,” says Walling. “I know there will be others that will come after me in later years.  But, I want to continue leading this city as mayor.”

Already hundreds of people have voted absentee, many of whom made up their minds about the mayor’s race before the city switched back to Detroit water earlier this month.