Inslee talks climate change, water shutoffs during Detroit visit

By: - June 4, 2019 5:44 pm

Gov. Jay Inslee listens to Theresa Landrum, June 4, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Presidential hopeful Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has described himself as the “climate candidate.”

On Tuesday, he visited sections of Detroit during what was described by his team as a listening tour in two neighborhoods: Southwest Detroit and the historic North End. Both communities are largely residential, but have large industrial businesses, including a petroleum refinery and mothballed automotive industry plants.

Inslee is one of more than two dozen contenders who plan to challenge Donald Trump for president in 2020. Thirteen candidates, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who’s also campaigning Tuesday, have barnstormed Michigan.

With Southwest Detroit community activist Theresa Landrum as his tour guide, Inslee saw an aging Southwest-area neighborhood that had the Marathon Detroit refinery in eyesight. The pungent smell for the plant was apparent in the neighborhood that has benefited from a newly constructed community center but is a shell of itself in terms of once-plentiful mom-and-pop businesses.

“We have to have a president who will step up to the plate and put some teeth into stopping the use of coal, oil and gas,” Inslee said to several reporters.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee | Ken Coleman

Landrum, a lifelong resident, believes that “it’s too early to know” who is the best Democratic candidate for president but she was encouraged that Inslee visited her neighborhood.

“I really have a great concern that more have not addressed this issue so far,” Landrum said on Fort Street, a thoroughfare renamed for Matthew McNeely, who in 1973 became the first African American to serve as Michigan House speaker pro tem.

Inslee’s “Evergreen Economy” plan would spend $9 trillion over 10 years to move to clean energy, build out public transport and high-speed rail, invest in research into new agriculture and energy technology, and create a “G.I. Bill” for fossil fuel workers. He said the plan would create 8 million jobs.

His Detroit visit, however, triggered sharp criticism from the GOP.

“Jay Inslee may think he has the moral high ground when it comes to climate change, but he’s just another 2020 hypocrite scooting around unrealistic and costly policies,” said Michael Joyce, Republic National Committee spokesperson.

“While Inslee lectures others for their climate change failures, he was unable to get similar environmental policies off the ground in Washington State. In Michigan, policies like the Green New Deal would only harm residents and the economy – especially Michigan auto workers who’d be out of a job if Inslee gets his way.”

Michelle Martinez is an environmental activist who helped to host Inslee.

“Any presidential candidate who is running today should be thinking about how we are going to create a new economy to save us from the perils of climate crisis,” she said.  

“I really have a great concern that more [candidates] have not addressed this issue so far,” Landrum added.

Valerie Blakely at her home Woodland Street home | Ken Coleman

Later in the day, Valerie Blakely talked with Inslee about her 2014 water shutoff, which was caused by a polar vortex, a set of sub-zero temperatures for 14 consecutive days and led to increase heating costs. She accumulated a $900 heating bill in her four-bedroom home and it forced her family of six to make critical decisions about which bills to pay first. Blakely’s family faced a $1,200 water bill just prior to utility shutoff.

“We just could not get caught up or the electricity gets cut off,” Blakely recalled. “Everything suffered from people getting shoes to getting underwear. We couldn’t get our head above water.”

“It is stunning how debilitating it is this water issue is,” Inslee told the Advance exclusively on Detroit’s North End. “I just didn’t have a feeling how desperate this issue is. Having to get bottled water to your kids and whole neighborhoods losing water. I don’t know how else to say it but, ‘How could this happen in America?’”

Valerie Blakely’s home | Ken Coleman photo

The community where Inslee visited was a strong middle-class neighborhood as late as the 1970s. In fact, Charles A. Roxborough, a notable attorney and Michigan’s first African American member of the state Senate, lived comfortably for years. So did Sidney Barthwell, a drug store owner and elected member of the historical 1961-62 Michigan Constitutional Convention.

Blakely was “shocked” and impressed by Inslee’s visit.

“We don’t talk about poverty, mass water shutoffs and mortgage foreclosures at the presidential campaign level,” she said.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.