Rick Snyder and Brian Calley at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman
The Flint water crisis will undoubtedly define Gov. Rick Snyder’s legacy. After the lead contamination scandal dominated national and international headlines, he charged Lt. Gov. Brian Calley with heading up the administration’s response.
In a Dec. 20 interview with Calley at his Capitol office, the Michigan Advance asked him if criticism of Snyder on the Flint water crisis was unfair. The Republican lieutenant governor, who leaves office today, didn’t blame the media.
“I certainly think that the investigations unfolded were both unconventional and unfair. Highly politicized,” he said.
When asked if he was specifically talking about Attorney General Bill Schuette, the LG said, “Yes. It’s not that that office hasn’t been used politically in the past, but to use criminal prosecutions in such a blatantly political way … And I know I’m close to it, but [Democratic former Attorney General] Frank Kelley called them show trials.”
Two Michigan environmental regulators involved in the crisis just pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, the Associated Press reported last week. Two high-profile Snyder aides are facing trial: state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive, who was just hired for new advisory physician role in HHS at an annual salary of $180,000.
There’s no love lost between Calley and Schuette, who ran against each other in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. In the first part of an interview with the Advance, Calley said he would have been a stronger general election candidate than Schuette against Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer. In the second part, Calley didn’t rule out running for governor again.
The Advance also talked to Calley about what he wishes the administration would have done differently in Flint and his advice for Lt. Gov.-elect Garlin Gilchrist II.
And Calley shared details you probably don’t know about the first couple times he and Snyder met before becoming running mates in 2010.
“The first time we met was the very end of 2009, but that was just at a banquet we were at together,” Calley recalled. “… The funny thing was that John Yob was our mutual friend and consultant. He wanted us to meet before then, and I’d turned down the meeting because I didn’t think there was any chance he would win.”
Here are excerpts from the final part of the interview:
Michigan Advance: Is there anything involving the Flint water crisis that you wish that you or the administration had done differently?
Calley: Well, yeah. I think understanding the Lead and Copper rule and … what corrosion control is … When you get involved in city management, there are so many details that have to go right, and so the follow up questions … If there’s one lesson I hope everybody in government, particularly those that have responsibility over bureaucracies, but take away from that is that is to not accept bureaucratic answers to plain questions.
So one of the more frustrating things is that normally I wouldn’t get to see all the emails of this administration, but I have because we made them all public. And so it was frustrating to see people in the front office, including the chief of staff, ask the right questions, and get technical bureaucratic answers that kind of sounded like a real answer, but now that we know so much more about the bureaucracy and the technicalities in the law. They weren’t complete answers.
Michigan Advance: When you’re saying chief of staff, is that Dennis Muchmore?
Calley: Yeah. So if Dennis meets with pastors and goes back and asks, ‘What’s the problem with this; is the water good?’ And the answer comes back, ‘According to the most recent tier one samples, the water meets the Lead and Copper rule standards of parts per billion within this range.’ Well, that kind of says like they said ‘yes’ to his question, but they really didn’t say ‘yes’ to that question. Were all the samples actually from tier one sites? What are tier one sites, anyway?
Is the Lead and Copper rule even the right standard that we ought to be using in Michigan in the first place? What’s your confidence in the way that the samples were collected? Is it still within standard now, sure? But is it trending in the wrong in direction? Is it trending in the right direction? Is it stable?
… Knowing everything I know now about it because of what happened in Flint, those are all things that I really felt that the questions that were asked, they deserved that information to just naturally be a part of the answer. And it wasn’t. So, not accepting technical bureaucratic speak to plain answers is something that I hope every public official across this state will learn from that. From Flint.
Michigan Advance: Do you think that a lot of the criticism that Gov. Snyder has gotten about Flint has been unfair?
Calley: Well, I certainly think that the investigations unfolded were both unconventional and unfair. Highly politicized.
Michigan Advance: Are you specifically talking about the attorney general [Bill Schuette]?
Calley: Yes. It’s not that that office hasn’t been used politically in the past, but to use criminal prosecutions in such a blatantly political way … And I know I’m close to it, but [Democratic former Attorney General] Frank Kelley called them show trials. And … I don’t think you’re gonna find a more respected legal mind than Frank Kelley. So, yeah, I think a lot of that was unfair. Obviously, the whole thing was a horrible tragedy. It touched me enough to where I decided to move my office there, to work there, to really just be with people.
It wasn’t that there was work that I have to be on the ground to do. I could have done all the work I did from here as I did from there, but I just felt that people needed that presence. Like, that visual reminder that this is a priority. So it became a really important part of my life. Obviously, my professional life, but my social life, too. Friends. I didn’t really have any kind of history with that town before. And now I have an embarrassment of riches and friends in Flint. I mean, it’s a pretty amazing place I didn’t know much about before.
Michigan Advance: You were taking [Lt. Gov.-elect] Garlin Gilchrist around [last week]. You were definitely one of the strongest lieutenant governors in Michigan history. You took the lead on the Flint water crisis, the 2011 tax reform and what became the Gordie Howe bridge. Do you expect that Garlin will follow in that mold, or do you think he’ll be more a traditional No. 2 supporting the governor?
Calley: I would love to see the role in Michigan continue to strengthen, but that’s a very personal decision by the governor. I’ve tried to keep in mind that any power or authority that I had, aside from breaking ties in the Senate, is just that was was entrusted to me or delegated to me by the governor. On the opposite self doesn’t hold significant power.
It resides near significant power, and so the advice I gave — I don’t think he would me saying — the No. 1 piece of advice that I gave to Garlin is: Gain the trust of your governor. That’s step No.1, and you can’t rush that.
The advantage that I had is that I knew Rick for a year before we took office. I was on the campaign trail with him in a pretty substantial way through the fall, but we really go to know each other much earlier than that.
Michigan Advance: You pretty much wrote his tax plan, didn’t you?
Calley: Well, he had a federal taxable income-based kind of concept developed. And our first conversation was, ‘What do you think about this?’
Michigan Advance: When was that?
Calley: Let’s see, the first time we met was the very end of 2009, but that was just at a banquet we were at together. We were seated at the table together. The funny thing was that John Yob was our mutual friend and consultant. He wanted us to meet before then, and I’d turned down the meeting because I didn’t think there was any chance he would win.
Michigan Advance: Did you tell him that later?
Calley: Yeah, he knows that already, but we joke around about that. My political instincts [laughs]: ‘This guy has no chance.’ But I just really, really liked him, and John knew I would. He said, ‘If you meet him, you guys are gonna hit it off.’ So we got together at a coffee shop; we talked tax policy.
Michigan Advance: Where was that?
Calley: It was right here in Lansing. … So we talked about what became the corporate income tax plan, and the simplicity of it was beautiful. I actually put it on a table during the MBT [Michigan Business Tax] discussions [in 2006 and 2007]. It was kind of brushed aside because it raised a lot less money. But to me, it wasn’t about the money. It was just, everybody talks about simple tax codes and nobody ever does it. But what if we did it? And that’s what we did here.
It’s just one of the things where … there’s always ideas put on the table, even in this Lame Duck Legislature. There are bills running through that you can make a policy argument behind, but they add complexity into the tax code. And that’s the thing that I’m … so proud of is that Michigan has a pure and simple corporate tax code.
Michigan Advance: The coffee shop meeting — do you remember when that was?
Calley: … I know it was still cold outside, but I don’t remember what month.
Michigan Advance: Sometime in 2010 — winter, spring?
Calley: Yeah, first quarter 2010. Yeah, I’d say. … I think this is the same administration values-wise today as it was in the first day. I’m so proud of Rick Snyder. He’s lost a little bit of his nerdiness since when I first met him, but his integrity is exactly the same — and as much power comes with the governor’s office and have it not really change him. And I’m close to him; I see it. And I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t really believe that.
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