How Donald Trump Is Connected to the Flint Water Crisis

by Ryan Schleeter

November 30, 2016

Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was instrumental in passing the law that set the stage for the Flint water crisis.

Flint Water Crisis

Photo by Ryan Garza / Associated Press.

Flint, Michigan still does not have clean drinking water.

Now, President-elect Donald Trump — whose campaign stump speech included a crude joke about the city’s water crisis — has tapped one of the people responsible for the crisis to join his Cabinet.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, and her family have a long history of using their wealth to manipulate Michigan state elections and push through “reforms” that undercut local democracy. She’s a staunch advocate of privatization measures that shift power from people to corporations — and one of those measures led directly to the poisoning of Flint’s water and citizens.

Betsy DeVos and the Law That Poisoned Flint

In trying to get to the root of the crisis in Flint, many have pointed to Michigan’s emergency manager law, which allows the governor to bypass the elected government and appoint a single official to take over a city’s budgeting. The law was actually overturned by a popular referendum in 2012, but sneakily pushed back through state legislature by Governor Rick Snyder immediately afterwards in a way that prevented it from being subject to another public vote.

And when Michigan voters said they didn’t want their local democracies hijacked, they had good reason. It was Flint’s emergency financial manager Darnell Earley who all but forced the city to switch its water source to the polluted Flint River.

Earley both overruled a city council vote that would have prevented the switch and declined an offer from neighboring Detroit to provide safe, sanitized water. But if Earley is responsible for the disastrous decision itself, those who paved his way to power are also to blame — and that’s where Betsy DeVos comes in.

Since the 1970s, the DeVos family has invested at least $200 million in far-right think tanks, media outlets, PACs, and other causes, with a particular focus on their home state of Michigan. Along with the Koch brothers, they’re major funders of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based partner of the Heritage Foundation and architect of the state’s emergency manager law. Between 1998 and 2011, four DeVos-controlled foundations have given $560,000 to the Mackinac Center; that figure doesn’t include donations from personal trusts or corporations, which do not have to be reported.

With the Mackinac Center working to craft the legislation that would advance the DeVos’ privatization agenda, they needed a governor who would push it through to law. So in 2010, the family spent $1.9 million in the election that put Governor Snyder in power.

Months later, Snyder signed the emergency manager act into law and appointed a Mackinac executive as the state’s first emergency manager. That manager’s first move? Outsource the city of Pontiac’s water system to a company indicted on federal conspiracy charges and Clean Water Act violations.

The writing was on the wall for Flint.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos

Donald Trump (left) and Betsy DeVos (right) after a meeting in November. Photo by Jabin Botsford / Washington Post via Getty.

Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration

The results of the type of pro-corporate, anti-democratic measures DeVos stands for are clear. We’ve seen what happens when politicians abuse their power to wrest democracy from the hands of the people — and it’s still unfolding in Flint.

With DeVos as Secretary of Education, we could see the same happen to public schools. DeVos has long maneuvered to strip funding and resources from public schools, favoring instead a voucher system that diverts public funding to private and religious schools. Among many other consequences, that could have grave implications for science and climate change education in schools across the country.

Furthermore, selecting DeVos — a Koch-esque member of the billionaire GOP donor class — runs directly counter to Trump’s campaign promise to reform Washington by “draining the swamp” of establishment Republicans.

As far as Flint goes, Trump blamed the whole fiasco on “incompetent politicians” in a speech earlier this month. By his own measure, it looks like he just nominated one for his Cabinet.

Ryan Schleeter

By Ryan Schleeter

Ryan Schleeter is an online content producer and editor of the Greenpeace USA blog. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Grist, GreenBiz, EcoWatch, and more. Find him on Twitter @ryschlee.

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