By Jan Worth-Nelson
Stating that he has a “unique perspective” about state and local issues honed by what he learned from the Flint water crisis, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling has announced he is running as a Democrat for state representative in the 49th District and expected to file paperwork with the Secretary of State for his campaign committee this week. The election is set for Nov. 6.
Walling, a Rhodes Scholar who became an embattled – and controversially maligned — symbol of the city’s water woes, was ousted in 2015 by Karen Weaver, in a campaign in which his role in the crisis was front and center.
The 49th District includes Flushing, Swartz Creek, Mt. Morris City and Township, Flint Township and much of Flint. The seat is available because the current 49th District representative, Phil Phelps, is being term-limited out after the legislatively-mandated maximum of three two-year terms, though Phelps has served only five years. Phelps, also a Democrat, originally was voted into the seat in a 2013 special election after Jim Ananich, the previous 49th district representative, was elected to the Michigan State Senate. The district has a population of about 83,000, is 52 percent female, 67 percent white and 27 percent black, according to Wikipedia. The position pays a yearly salary of $72,000.
Since his departure from City Hall, Walling re-opened his policy and management consulting company, 21Performance, with clients including Michigan State University’s Regional Economic Innovation Center and Phil Hagerman’s Diplomat Pharmacy. He is teaching classes in leadership, ethics and diversity at Kettering University and Baker College. In addition he founded the Flint Forum for Social Business with support from Factory Two and Ferris Wheel 100K Ideas. He lives with his wife Carrie, a political science professor and human rights scholar, and two sons in the College Cultural neighborhood.
The image of Walling flipping the switch that opened the city’s pipes to Flint River water in 2014 became a symbol of the debacle, and he also was attacked and mocked by many for drinking the water on TV in 2015, an act of public reassurance about the water quality that later was proven unsupported. He has apologized since – including here, again, saying he was misled by state officials.
In follow-up to his announcement, Walling responded to a series of questions from East Village Magazine. Here are our questions and what he replied.
- What have you been doing since your departure from the mayor’s office, and in what ways do those activities suggest your potential contributions to the 49th District constituents?
“It was important to my family and I that we stay in Flint and continue to support the community. I’m working on a number of public policy, education and business initiatives. I re-opened my policy and management consulting company called 21Performance with clients such as Michigan State University’s Regional Economic Innovation Center and Diplomat Pharmacy. I’m teaching classes at Kettering University and Baker College on leadership, ethics, and diversity. I also founded the Flint Forum for Social Business with support from Factory Two and Ferris Wheel 100K Ideas. I believe that our community; economy and democracy are all linked and must be strengthened together. I see the big picture and know we need major changes because the status quo isn’t working. I’m looking forward to spending more time in all of the communities that make up the 49th district and I’ll be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts about better policies.”
- What would be your top three legislative priorities?
“I’m running for state representative to get government back on the side of the people. My priorities are education, infrastructure and workers’ rights. Every community deserves good schools, safe roads, clean water, a healthy environment and a wide range of job opportunities. In education, we need a school system that gets every student ready for a career and for college. With infrastructure, we need a 21st Century system of roads, trails, bridges, pipes, rail lines and internet along with innovative policies for fair funding. Finally, a growing economy depends on having the best workers so I will push for workers’ rights to fair wages, strong unions, paid sick leave, and safety and training standards.”
- How would you describe your anticipated “governing philosophy” and/or style? How would you counter trends of extreme partisanship and vanishing decorum?
“First and foremost, I will serve the people and be available for constituents. My door will be open and people can contact me personally anytime on my cell at 810-280-7684 or by email at daynewalling@gmailcom. Just like I had open office hours as mayor each week, I will have community meetings and coffees throughout the district to hear concerns and suggestions. Through discussion and dialogue, we will develop better policies together that I can take to the Capitol. With Flint’s master plan, I saw how a genuine participation process can work because thousands of people with different views were involved yet the plan was ultimately adopted by unanimous votes of the planning commission and city council.
I also will advocate for local democratic control when it comes to state policies.
In Flint we all saw what happens when one political party and unaccountable managers dictate from Lansing. It has been one raw deal after another. There are lessons here for both sides of the aisle. We need to protect the democratic process itself and we must ensure the rights of everyone to participate, to vote and to assemble are intact in Michigan. Sustainable policy solutions work with democracy not against it.
For example, I have proposed a new policy framework to address municipal financial distress that depends on partnerships and maintains checks and balances. With all of the issues I work on, I will search for common sense solutions that truly serve the people of Michigan and our communities in Genesee County.”
- How might a successful Dayne Walling candidacy help restore your constituents’ faith in democracy — and the prospects for democracy locally and at the state level?
“Our democracy is under attack. We’re in a tough fight. I know what it’s like to take a punch and so does our community. I hope people see that I’m not giving up or going away. We each have a responsibility to speak up and to invest our energy and ideas in our governments that are supposed to be of, by and for the people.”
I learned some very hard lessons in the mayor’s office and through the Flint water crisis and my faith in government has been shaken. I will push for independent and nonpartisan oversight for issues such as redistricting, water safety, and public lands. Where we are now can’t be the end of the story. Government has to be put back on the side of the people. That’s the message we need to send up and down the ballot in 2018.
- In light of the events of the Flint water crisis, some of which subjected you to severe criticism, how will you convince skeptical citizens that you did your due diligence in protecting Flint citizens from toxic water?
“I made mistakes in my handling of the Flint water crisis and I’m sorry about it every single day. I now know that the information I was receiving was being manipulated and I trusted the experts for too long. The assurances I echoed turned out to be false. My goal was to serve Flint residents to the best of my ability. I did what I thought was right at each step and I was asking questions and raising concerns with federal, state and local authorities. I apologize for not seeing what was really happening until our doctors had the data on childhood lead poisoning. I understand people’s anger; I am angry too and that motivates me to do everything I can to address the problems.
“I hope people will look closely at the full record and see that I was working for clean water and better infrastructure even though the state was ultimately controlling the budget and personnel of the city. I developed a comprehensive water quality plan and a capital improvement schedule, called for the removal of all the lead pipes and assembled the partnership to get Flint back on Detroit water before I ended my term.
“Now that I have gone through this experience I have a unique perspective. I can look back and see my own shortcomings more clearly but I can also see solutions going forward. I can envision regulations, training and programs that will ensure no one and no community is ever in the same position again. If I am provided the opportunity to serve as a state representative, then I will be a strong and knowledgeable advocate for clean water and the broader environmental and health issues around the Great Lakes, infrastructure and planning. I hope voters will see my determination to take the fight to Lansing as a sign of my true character and of my deep commitment to protecting our communities and our democracy.”
East Village Magazine has reached out to other potential candidates for the 49th District position and will continue its coverage of the race as information is available.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.