The Drink: Former Mayor of Flint Shares His Experience of the Flint Water Crisis

Dayne Walling twice drank Flint's toxic water on television. The first time was in April of 2014.

Dayne Walling (right) is the former mayor of Flint, MI.
Dayne Walling (right) is the former mayor of Flint, MI. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Dayne Walling twice drank Flint’s toxic water on television. The first time was in April of 2014. The City of Flint, under pressure from an austerity-obsessed Republican state government, changed its water source from the more expensive Detroit municipal water system to the cheaper Flint River. As the Mayor of Flint, Walling is seen turning off the connection to the Detroit system and happily guzzling a glass of water from the new source.

The second time was a year later, in July 2015. Flint residents were complaining that foul-smelling water was making them sick. In response, Mayor Walling tweeted that his family continued to drink Flint water at home every day, the subtext being that there was nothing to worry about. He was then challenged by local TV station WNEM to drink the water on air again. This time he drank it out of a coffee cup.

A month later, an independent researcher named Marc Edwards proved conclusively that the water being drawn from the Flint River water was 19x more corrosive than the Detroit water. This was 8 months after a local GM plant stopped using Flint water because it was corroding engine parts. Walling acted quickly, did everything he could to make things right, but the damage to his reputation was terminal. He lost his bid for re-election in the Fall of 2015.

This is not to say that it’s over for Walling by any means. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He’s still young, only 41. His career is salvageable. We’ll hear from him again.

But the yearning question burns: why the hell did he drink that water?

You’re a Rhodes Scholar who returned to your hometown Flint to run for mayor. Was the plan to spark a national political career by starting local? 

Growing up in Flint, I developed a deep attachment to my hometown. With everything that Flint was going through in the 1980s, with the factory closures that Michael Moore captured in Roger & Me, I felt like Flint deserved a bright future.

Isn’t that the kind of answer a politician has to give though?

When you ask someone who’s in elected office, of course they say they’re focused on the office they’re in. But I went into this expecting it to be an eight-to-ten year project. If you go back and look at early interviews with me in the Flint Journal and they ask, “well is this just a stepping stone for you to go on and do this and that?” it’s like no. I think it’s going to be eight-to-ten years worth of work to get Flint on a different trajectory so that it can have a future. I’m not going to rule out that there might be an opportunity for me to run for another elected office, but that’s not my goal.

What’s your response to people who say, look, these jobs aren’t coming back. They’re gone. It’s either robots or China and that’s it.

I think there’s some truth to that. It’s to say that the 21st century American economy is going to be fundamentally different than the 20th century, especially the earlier 20th century economy, where Flint first boomed around the carriage and the auto industries. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to discard hundreds of small and mid-sized communities across the country that grew up around American industry 50 to 100 years ago. Flint actually has a lot of assets that make it competitive in new industries beyond manufacturing.

What are some of those?

We’re a center for trade distribution and logistics. We’re positioned halfway between Chicago and Toronto. I-69 crosses the Blue Water Bridge into Ontario, Canada, and that’s the second busiest international trade passage in the country next to the freight that goes daily through Detroit and Windsor. So that’s one example. Another one is the healthcare sector. We have a growing number of medical supply, medical device, and specialty pharmaceutical companies and those are all industries that are positioned to grow in the coming decades.

Flint has never had a population of over 200,000. Why has everyone heard of it? 

There have been a number of historic firsts in Flint that are in every U.S. history textbook. It’s the birthplace of General Motors, the largest company in the world in the 20th century. It’s also where the United Auto Workers won the right to collective bargain with General Motors in 1936. GM was actually the first major U.S. industrial corporation to grant its workers collective bargaining rights. After General Motors fell, then U.S. Steel and many others became unionized in the years thereafter. That’s another episode that’s in every U.S. history textbook.

What was Flint like when you were growing up?

I think the 70s weren’t bad for a lot of folks, but I was very young. I was born in 1974. By the time I gained a community consciousness, it was factory closures, crack epidemic, murder capital of United States. Then Roger & Me put it all on film for the world to see. I saw the premiere of Roger & Me when I was in high school.

So you go back to Flint, you get elected mayor, everything’s looking up. When did things start going south?

In the wake of the Great Recession, we get a power shift in state government to the Tea Party Right and it has an agenda for how to deal with financially distressed cities. It’s not good. The city’s tax base is significantly weakened with the loss of population and closure of factories. Flint was facing a ten million dollar deficit when I was elected mayor.

Wow, so it was a challenge from the start.

Oh yes. That was the Summer of 2009. The City of Flint had faced financial distress for almost two decades. Under Democratic Governor Granholm, there was a cooperative approach with cities looking at how we could increase services, make the cities more attractive. Loans to try to get over the dip created by the recession. But then after the 2010 elections, the Michigan State House, Senate, Governor’s office, Attorney General’s office, were all controlled by Republicans. They brought an approach of fiscal austerity. That’s when you had 15 financial emergencies in local governments and school districts declared across the state of Michigan, including both Flint and Detroit.

How long had you been mayor at that point?

Just two years.

Were you just like oh crap, this is terrible?

We knew that the state would be very austere.

The story I was told about the water crisis was that there was some bureaucrat that didn’t check the right thing because he was incompetent, and it led to disaster. Are you saying that it was a result of Republicans forcing Flint to make huge spending cuts?

Well, what I’ve said so far is true about the focus on cutting costs, reducing services, balancing the budget, but to be fair, there’s another side of what happened and that is the tragic misinterpretation of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s lead and copper rule. I’ve been asked if I thought these appointed emergency managers had set out to have this happen. I personally don’t believe that. There was oversight from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality which is where I think you get the reference to the bureaucratic element. Right near the end of my time in October of 2015, the director of the MDEQ admitted that his department had misapplied the federal safe drinking standards. They had prevented the city from adding this phosphate which would have protected the pipes from the corrosion.

So it was MDEQ’s fault?

What you had was an unusually strong commitment to austerity combined with regulatory failure and the fact that there wasn’t the normal check and balance that you get with local control. If you have myself and city council asking the questions, approving expenditures, you naturally get all that dialog.

Do you feel that there’s anything that you could possibly have done differently?

I think about the Flint water crisis every single day. That’s not an exaggeration. There were things that in retrospect, I wish I would have asked more questions about, but at the same time, it wasn’t like I wasn’t asking questions. In hindsight, you know what you’ve missed.

Can you talk about the moment where you drank water on TV?

Right. Myself and many others in the community were being assured by MDEQ and the leadership in the city’s public works department that the water was safe, it was meeting all the standards. I had even reached out to the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and had a direct point of contact with the U.S. EPA because I wanted to hear directly from federal officials.

I was assured by the EPA that the water in Flint was meeting standards. The thinking was that the reports of bad water were isolated problems. I was asked on a weekly TV show if I would drink Flint water. They went to the tap and poured a glass. My family and I are drinking Flint water everyday, my kids are drinking it at school. So on the newscast, I take a drink of the water and share the assurance that the water‘s meeting the same standards.

That’s part of what people looked back on later and accused me of knowing that it wasn’t safe, which is not true. I have thought a lot about that moment and I regret it now. I think in retrospect people thought that by me drinking the water on TV, I was actually discounting these different complaints we were getting about the water and health concerns. It’s one of those challenges as a public official about how you’re honest about your own viewpoint, but you don’t discount the concerns that other people have. If I had a chance to go back in time and do that again, then I would say,” I’m not going to drink that water here on the news because I know that there are a lot of people around the city who have problems with their water that we need to focus on fixing.”

I don’t know, it seems to me that it’s a little hindsight 20/20 to say, “oh I could have not drank the water.” If you really thought it was fine, and had been assured it was fine by MDEQ and the EPA, I don’t see what else you could have possibly done besides drink it. You probably would’ve been criticized just as badly if you hadn’t drunk it.

Yeah, it could be. Monday morning quarterback. You don’t actually get to play the game again, you just think about what could have been different. I think it’s just that people have said to me, well you knew we were having problems with our water. It just didn’t come off the way I wanted it to. Maybe I could have drunk the water but commented that yes, this water appears fine, but there’s other issues that we know we do need to work on.

How long was it after you drank the water that it became clear that there was actually something wrong with it?

Dr. Marc Edwards had been conducting his own water testing throughout the summer. He came out with his results at the end of August of 2015. His research showed that there were greater problems with the water system than the state and federal regulators had stated. He also had different testing methods. In September, I looked at his research and listened to what the state regulators were saying.

In the midst of trying to sort out what was really happening, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha came forward to myself, our state senator and our congressmen and shared her own personal review of childhood lead poisoning data that she had access to through the public hospital. It showed an alarming spike in childhood lead poisoning that correlated with the switch to the Flint River. Being in the room with her going over the data was a couple of the worst hours of my life. I immediately pledged to work with her and the medical community to issue a lead advisory. Within a couple weeks, I was able to stand in front of the elementary school that I went to and announce that the Detroit water was flowing back into the Flint system.

But the problem persisted anyway because the pipes had been contaminated, right?

Yeah, and so even to today there’s thousands of houses that aren’t safe without filters.

How many years is it going to take to retrofit the system and how much money is it going to cost?

It’s hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the lead service lines and also the corroded main lines. They replaced six or seven hundred lead service lines this past year and they hope to replace five to six thousand a year for the next two to three years. Some other communities that were progressive about infrastructure improvements and lead removal started this process 20 or 30 years ago when the lead and copper rule was coming into effect. Flint needs to do in two or three years what it’s taken other cities 20 years to accomplish.

Recently there was an article that said the GOP recently quietly closed the investigation to the Flint water crisis. Basically, they haven’t come up with anything new. Is anyone going to be punished for this?

There’s a significant ongoing criminal investigation by the Michigan Attorney General’s office that has brought charges against more than a dozen individuals.

Who are they?

The Detroit papers have done a good job if you want a full list, but charges have been brought against emergency managers, state employees and the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a couple city public works employees.

You’ve certainly weathered one hell of a storm, but you’re still young and it seems like you’re standing on your feet. What’s next for you?

Yeah, I’m in the middle of one of those transitions that takes place in our careers. I’ve been doing some consulting work. I have a company called 21st Century Performance that’s done some policy and management consulting over the past year. I’m also working on a book about my ten years in the public arena in Flint running for mayor, serving as mayor, dealing with the recession, the water crisis, and the shifting state and federal politics. I’m figuring out how I can keep contributing to the city that I love so much. There’s a lot to be done.

Isaac Simpson contributes to Breakout, a media platform that gives a voice to talent in under served and emerging markets, where this interview originally appeared. The Drink: Former Mayor of Flint Shares His Experience of the Flint Water Crisis