Dayne Walling was mayor of Flint, Michigan, for six years, but he is best remembered for a single day. On April 25, 2014, as news cameras rolled, Walling pushed the button that shut off the city’s connection to Detroit’s water system and switched it to the Flint River. Although Walling had not made the decision to draw water from the Flint River—that was decided by an emergency manager appointed by the state to usurp his mayoral powers—he executed the physical act that initiated the Flint water crisis. Once the switch was complete, he hoisted a glass of river water, toasting “Here’s to Flint!”
The water, of course, was found to be tainted with lead, as a result of engineers’ failure to treat it with corrosion controls. Hundreds of children have since been diagnosed with lead poisoning, and a dozen Flint residents died of Legionella from drinking river water. Walling never lived down that moment. Nor did he live down a morning TV appearance during which he drank a mug of Flint water and declared, “My family and I drink the water every day. … All of our tests, ever since this year, have been comparable with what we used to get out of Detroit.”
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In the fall of 2015, when a local doctor presented evidence that Flint’s children had elevated levels of lead in their blood, Walling scrambled to reconnect his city’s water supply to Detroit. But the damage to Flint’s residents, and his own reputation, was done. That November, angry Flintstones voted Walling out of office, making him the first political casualty of the water crisis.
But nearly four years after that election, Dayne Walling is trying to make a comeback, with a bid to represent the southwest corner of Flint and three of its suburbs in the Michigan House of Representatives. He is facing off against five opponents in the August 7 Democratic primary, and while there hasn’t been any polling in the race, Walling is considered an underdog. He still has name recognition and goodwill left over from his time as mayor, but he also faces the skepticism and anger of voters who felt he didn’t do enough to prevent the biggest disaster in his city’s history. Some activists argue he was complicit with state officials in a cover-up and should even be criminally indicted.
On a hot summer Sunday in July, he was knocking on the doors of aluminum-sided bungalows on Flint’s South Side. He looked ruddy and cheerful; the only physical change from his appearance as Flint’s boy mayor were the gray streaks in his thick, wavy hair. A Flint native and a Rhodes scholar, Walling showed the same earnestness and intellect that made him popular as mayor, promising he would push the state to do more to help residents still suffering the consequences of tainted water.
“Part of my motivation to run was being mayor and seeing the state not step up and do its job,” Walling told a young man named Andre Jones. “They’ve provided water filters, but that’s not enough. They’ve stopped distributing bottled water. Now that’s being done out of charitable contributions, but that’s something the state should be paying for.”
All along, Walling has maintained his innocence in the crisis, instead tracing it to when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder stripped him of his authority as mayor in 2011 and handed it to a budget-slashing emergency manager. Walling is not among the 15 public employees who have been indicted by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for their roles in the water crisis, on charges ranging from obstructing an investigation to involuntary manslaughter; the emergency manager at the time of the crisis was indicted. This week, Walling was among a handful of officials dismissed from a class-action lawsuit related to the Flint crisis. (No one charged with a crime connected to the water crisis has so far been sent to prison, though a few have been sentenced to probation after copping plea bargains.)
Flint’s shadow hangs over other races in Michigan this year. Schuette is running to replace a term-limited Snyder, and some say he is using the Flint charges to “make himself look like a hero,” as Susan Demas, a Democratic political analyst in Michigan, put it to me; Schuette has called such allegations “desperate.” In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, ex-state Senator Gretchen Whitmer has released a plan to speed the replacement of lead pipes, while former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed received the endorsement of “Little Miss Flint,” the schoolgirl whose letter brought President Barack Obama to the community.
But Walling is the only figure directly connected to the water crisis who is seeking redemption from voters. And while he hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, he is discovering that the legacy of the water crisis still haunts him.
“He’s like a character out of a Shakespearean tragedy, specifically, Cassio to Iago in Othello,” says Jan Worth-Nelson, editor of Flint’s East Village Magazine. “Cassio is a young, inexperienced soldier Iago is good at manipulating. Iago leads Cassio into committing an action that would disgrace him.”
Walling says his own trust in government is lower than it was before the water crisis. He now wants to take the hard lessons he has learned to the place he sees as the major source of Flint’s problems: the state capitol in Lansing.
When Walling moved home to Flint in 2006, at age 32, he was the prototypical promising young politician. As a student at Michigan State University, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study in England. After that, he worked in the Washington, D.C., mayor’s office and pursued a doctorate in geography at the University of Minnesota. Deciding that his hometown needed him more than he needed a Ph.D., he left the program “all but dissertation.”
A year later, Walling ran for mayor of Flint. He lost his first race, to a car dealer named Don Williamson, but in 2009, when Williamson resigned to avoid a recall for lying about the city’s budget deficit, Walling won the special election to replace him, promising “to transform Flint into a sustainable 21st-century city with new jobs, safe neighborhoods, great schools and opportunity for all,” as he once put it.
Walling could hardly have become mayor at a more difficult moment in Flint’s often-difficult history. The Great Recession had driven the auto industry, still a mainstay of Flint’s economy, into near-bankruptcy. (General Motors was founded in Flint and, as late as the 1970s, still employed 80,000 workers there; it now employs about 6,500.) Between that and the housing crisis, property values fell more than 40 percent and with them property tax receipts. In early 2010, after the police union refused to accept pay cuts, Walling laid off 57 officers—a third of the force. That fall, he laid off 20 more. By the time Walling was finished cutting, Flint, with some 100,000 residents, was sometimes able to put only six officers on the street at one time. Murders increased from 36 in 2009 to a record-breaking 66 the next year, when Flint had the nation’s highest murder rate.
Nonetheless, Walling was reelected in 2011, on the promise that the state—whose governor is legally permitted to strip authority from mayors and councils in financially distressed cities—would not impose another emergency manager on Flint, as had happened in 2002. “You’ve seen what’s happened to this community when the spending goes wrong and we lose control of our entire community and the entire democratic process,” Walling said at a debate that year. “That’s not going to happen while I’m your mayor.”
Yet on the day of the election, which Walling won with 56 percent of the vote, Snyder, the Republican governor, announced he was appointing an emergency manager to take over Flint’s finances and attempt to eliminate its $10 million general fund deficit. Walling’s salary was cut nearly in half, and his duties were reduced to clerical matters such as economic development planning and addressing citizens’ complaints.
Before the emergency manager’s appointment, the Flint City Council had endorsed a plan to detach the city from the Detroit water system, which it felt was charging excessive rates, and join the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which planned to build a pipeline from Lake Huron. Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz authorized an engineering study to prepare the city’s water treatment plant to process Flint River water instead, and one of Kurtz’s successors, Darnell Earley, implemented the changeover. Earley has been charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter, and maintains his innocence; he has an upcoming hearing on August 13. In a 2015 Detroit News op-ed, he contended that Walling and the city council had decided to draw from the Flint River until the new pipeline was completed, and that he was only executing their orders. Kurtz, who has not been charged, told a congressional committee investigating the water crisis that his job was “strictly finance” and “did not include ensuring safe drinking water.”
Walling insists that Kurtz and Earley were responsible for changing the water source. “These same decisions would not have been made by city council,” he said in his own congressional testimony, in 2016. “When the manager’s decisions became known, I expressed my concerns internally about the switch, including the community’s perception of the river as polluted, the short timeline to accomplish such a critical change … and the limited staff capacity and inexperience that Department of Public Works’ leadership had with running a full-time water treatment plant.” Walling says that if he had been allowed to exercise his full powers, he never would have switched the city’s drinking water supply. “That was never part of my plan,” he told me. “The financial projections all showed the city staying with Detroit until the Karegnondi Water Authority started.”
The infamous button-pushing photo op was intended to celebrate the fact that the public works department had won the state’s approval to switch to the new water supply. Fatally, though, the state had failed to require corrosion control for the river water, which is harsher and harder to treat than lake water. At the time, Walling thought of it as “a major milestone.” Now, he calls it “a tragic marker.”
Since his defeat, Walling has been working as a public policy consultant for Michigan State University and others, and he has had time to think about the changes he wants to see in the relationship between Flint and Michigan’s state government.
“The distress of Michigan’s cities, starting with Detroit and Flint, is a direct result of policies made in Lansing,” Walling said in an interview at Good Beans, a Flint coffee shop. “The only good news is that policy changes at the state level can help restore Michigan’s once-great cities.”
According to a Michigan State University study, Michigan has the second-most stringent local taxation limits in the country, placing “tremendous pressure on local lawmakers’ ability to generate critical revenue.” On top of that, as Michigan’s economic fortunes began declining in the early 2000s, the state began diverting revenue-sharing money earmarked for cities to cover its own budget shortfalls. Flint lost out on $54 million. Detroit lost $200 million, contributing to its 2013 bankruptcy, and the subsequent appointment of its own emergency manager. Michigan has placed nine cities under emergency management, more than any other state.
On a notepad clipped inside a leather binder, Walling has a list of the new policies he wants to enact as a state representative. Allow cities to charge commuters the same income tax rate as residents, instead of just half. Expand the sales tax—the source of revenue-sharing to cities—to services. Involve the state in meeting retiree costs. Right now, Flint’s residents are paying the pensions of employees who worked for the city when it had 200,000 residents—many of them with high-paying GM jobs. That eats up a quarter of the city’s budget, according to Walling.
To implement any of those ideas, Walling first has to get elected to the Legislature—when his harshest critics say he should be held criminally liable for his role in the water crisis. “Not just indicted, he should have life in prison for the people who died from Legionella,” says water activist Arthur Woodson. “He didn’t fight for Flint. People were being poisoned, and he was saying ‘The water’s fine.’ People coming in with discolored water, their hair falling out. If I can see it, and I’m not privy to all the information he can get, that tells you he’s lying.” When Woodson found out Walling was holding a meet-and-greet at a bar in the Flint suburb of Flushing, he stood outside with a sign reading, “DO NOT VOTE DAYNE.”
Walling’s critics say that even if he lacked the full powers of his office, he was still Flint’s only citywide elected official, which provided him with a media platform and a connection to state and federal officials; he could have used both to alert the world to the water crisis. (In January 2015, in response to residents’ complaints, Walling did ask Snyder for $20 million to improve water treatment; he got $2 million.) Some who acknowledge Walling’s command of public policy still believe he exhibited a lack of leadership and political savvy. “[Dayne] wasn’t quite ready for the rough-and-tumble politics that the situation required,” says East Village Magazine’s Worth-Nelson. “He’s not bloodthirsty; he’s not ruthless.”
By Walling’s own admission, throughout most of the crisis, he believed assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s water met safe drinking standards. (Several MDEQ employees are facing criminal charges for lying that Flint’s water plant was employing sufficient corrosion controls, and for altering water quality reports to falsely lower lead levels.) When residents confronted him with discolored, foul-smelling water, “I thought that water had come out of their tap because of a failure in the system at their house or near the house,” Walling says. At his house, he says, “we only occasionally had discolored water that would flush out when it was run for a few minutes.” This is not exactly exculpatory: Walling lives in College Cultural, a neighborhood of handsome brick Tudors where water circulates more rapidly and therefore has fewer impurities than in the poor, desolate North End.
Not until September 2015, after listening to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha describe her discovery that Flint children were showing elevated levels of lead in their blood, did Walling come to understand that the entire water system was tainted, he says. That week, he ordered the city to issue a lead advisory, advising mothers not to mix hot tap water with formula, and for all residents to filter their water and flush it for five minutes. In her recent memoir, What the Eyes Don’t See, Hanna-Attisha devotes an entire chapter to her meeting with Walling, criticizing him for opting out of joining her news conference on lead levels because he was more concerned about traveling to Washington to meet Pope Francis.
“I thought that the doctors would be the most kind of credible and effective advocates based on the work she had done, and the city’s job was to do what it could with the water system,” Walling says now. “Politically, I look back on that, and I think, I should have been at the press conference, but in my mind, I was supportive of her work.”
In her book, Hanna-Attisha concludes, “I have often suspected that if [Walling] had been on the right side of the fight—and had skipped his chance to meet the pope—things would have been different. Today, he regularly expresses regret about his role.”
Oh, yes, Walling expresses regret. He will tell you he thinks “every day” about how he wishes he had conducted himself differently—by joining the City Council in calling for a return to Detroit’s water system, or refusing to drink that water on TV and acknowledging residents’ “legitimate concerns.”
Woulda, coulda, shoulda is the lament of losing horseplayers. Then they turn the page and try to win the next race. Walling’s campaign flyers don’t mention the water crisis. “My priorities are roads, schools, jobs,” they declare. As he goes door to door, he finds reason to hope that the voters will give him a second chance. During his last mayoral election, the corner of Flint that lies in his would-be legislative district—the wealthiest part of the city, containing the downtown, with its brand new farmers’ market, the local University of Michigan campus, libraries, art galleries, museums and streets curving past stately houses with lush, broad lawns—gave him more than 60 percent of the vote against his opponent, Karen Weaver. He says most voters he interacts with want to talk about the shabby state of Michigan’s roads or the excessive auto insurance rates paid by residents of Flint and Detroit.
“Dayne needs to be involved in politics,” says Flint resident Shannon Taylor, who encountered Walling at Good Beans. “The failure was in state government, period: not using an additive to prevent corrosion, and not believing people who had problems with their water.”
Flint’s popular congressman, Dan Kildee, has endorsed Walling’s main opponent, John Cherry III, the scion of a prominent local political family. Cherry, a Flint resident, told me that Walling’s performance during the water crisis as “not sufficient.” Cherry’s wife became pregnant during the crisis. After his daughter was born, his pediatrician suggested a lead test, which required holding the girl down while the doctor found a vein. The test came back negative, making Cherry grateful to the doctors, scientists and activists who had uncovered the fact that the water was tainted, enabling his family to take precautions, he says.
One thing Walling and Cherry agree on is that the emergency manager law is ultimately to blame for the water crisis; Cherry, too, promises to repeal it in Lansing if elected. As journalist Anna Clark notes in The Poisoned City, her new history of the water crisis, “The idea of emergency management is that an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of a reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid ground.” But in Flint, emergency managers made decisions based on saving money, not the health and safety of the citizens with whose well-being they had been entrusted.
“I wish that I had never been part of any of it,” Walling says now of the water crisis. “This has all happened to a community that I deeply love, and it is motivating me to make sure policy changes are made to make sure this never happens again.”