Sweeney’s Flint. (Like it or NOT!)

Senator Steve Sweeney calls Atlantic City/Flint comparisons 'horrible" and "very dishonest." He may be projecting.

Senator Steve Sweeney calls Atlantic City/Flint comparisons ‘horrible” and “very dishonest.” He may be projecting.

(Trenton) — NJ Senate President/gubernatorial wannabe Steve Sweeney’s controversial Atlantic City takeover bill sailed through the Senate yesterday, “even as supporters had reservations and as Mayor Don Guardian — the man who called the measure a ‘fascist dictatorship’ — looked on from the gallery.”

Sweeney rejects comparisons between his bill and a similar effort in Flint, Michigan which resulted in massive cases of lead poisoning. “It’s offensive to compare Atlantic City and what we’re trying to do to Flint, Michigan,” Sweeney told a packed committee. “To scare people and sensationalize this is horrible. And it’s very dishonest.”

It’s easy to understand Sweeney’s aversion to the Flint metaphor, especially the part where elected officials come off looking cheap, self-serving, and reckless. But it’s a fair analogy, notwithstanding Sweeney’s offended sensibilities. Here’s why:

Similar backstories
Both towns faltered badly when their primary industry cratered; automobiles in Flint and gambling in AC. Like Flint, the state of New Jersey exploited a decades-in-the-making crisis to takeover a financially distressed municipality. State officials in Michigan saw privatizing drinking water as a quick and easy way to generate revenue for a struggling municipality. Senator Sweeney clearly views drinking water the same way, citing AC’s finances (even though we apparently have $165 million to gift American Water to move their HQ a few miles down the road.)
Not all utilities are created equal. Some, like broadband Internet or even electricity we can manage losing from time to time. But we’re talking about water here. And when water becomes another budgetary/political prize to fight over, comparisons with Flint seem inevitable. What do you expect when a life-sustaining utility becomes (another) revenue stream for legislators to plug the budget holes their policies created!?

“Right now, residents have the ability to counter water privatization in their towns. This legislation eliminates the only recourse residents have to counter water privatization. Residents  in Flint begged to be heard and were ignored. Why are we stripping working poor in our state of their voice? How is that not like Flint?” asked Analilia Mejia of NJ Working Family Alliance, incredulously.

Bottom line: Michigan’s Tea Party Governor Rick Snyder forced Flint into a take-over situation, while Atlantic City’s takeover was cooked up by a Democrat with a similar world view about ways to treat struggling minority municipalities. If Atlantic City’s water supply becomes a cash cow to pay off municipal debt, there are bound to be unintended consequences (some of which might even be political.)

Identity Politics
Steve Sweeney wants to be NJ’s next governor. To get there he’ll have to win a Democratic Primary which he cannot do without the black vote. And if Sweeney thinks this depraved takeover attempt won’t haunt him next Spring, then he’s smoking something stronger than what’s legally allowable in NJ.  Sweeney’s plan already miffed the local NAACP and a growing list of big city mayors. And let’s not forget Sweeney nearly came to blows with Trenton’s most tenured African-American, Senator Ron Rice, Sr. just before yesterday’s vote.
Like Flint, AC is a majority minority town. In both cases, unelected (mostly white) interlopers pounced the minute they saw their chance.  Atlantic City isn’t looking for a handout! AC residents just seek a little consideration from the same politicians who have no problem showering billions in tax incentives on huge corporations. On that score, AC residents are quite right to remind us of of all those billion$ that gushed to Trenton these past four decades (to fund programs that didn’t do much locally.)
“We are willing to give up some autonomy,” AC Mayor Don Guardian said. “But we can’t consent to giving up our ability to represent the people of Atlantic City. We need to point out all of the senators that have voted against unions, against labor, against collective bargaining, against the civil rights of residents and officials, and we have to take them out at election time.”
For Democratic voters “election time” is next spring when partisans choose our candidate to replace Chris Christie. Sweeney, who hails from sparsely-populated South Jersey, must run the tables down south just to have a chance. For Sweeney’s would-be northern rivals, the iron is red-hot to court Atlantic County’s minority population. Fulop, Lesniak, Wisniewski (et al) surely know that.

“The comparisons between Flint and Atlantic City are real and alarming. Turning a blind eye to these connections may help Senate President Sweeney sleep at night, but it does nothing to address the very serious concerns with this bill has raises,” long-time activist Jim Walsh told PolitickerNJ after yesterday’s vote. “Sweeney’s legislation could subject any public water system in New Jersey to schemes that prioritize corporate profit or “emergency” cost cutting over public health and drinking water safety.”
And if that’s not akin to Flint, I dunno what is.
Jay Lassiter started covering New Jersey politics in 2005 as a blogger for BlueJersey.com. After a stint as America’s first State House blogger, Jay did communication for Congressman Rob Andrews and Congressman John Adler. Jay’s best known for his work legalizing medical marijuana and gay marriage and for working to end N.J.’s death penalty. He’s on Twitter @Jay_Lass.

Sweeney’s Flint. (Like it or NOT!)