Flint Mayor, Ushered In To Fix Water Crisis, Now Faces Recall

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Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Mich., who faces a recall election on Tuesday, made her way through a crowd before a speech last month. Credit Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com, via Associated Press

FLINT, Mich. — Mayor Karen Weaver sailed into office two years ago promising to clean Flint’s lead-tainted water and to restore trust in government, after previous leaders brought poisoned water to the city and ignored residents when they complained. Ms. Weaver declared a state of emergency, met with the president and made the rounds on cable television, quickly becoming one of America’s most visible mayors.

But as her celebrity grew, so too did a revolt within her own City Hall. She now faces City Council members accusing her of corruption, a court battle over Flint’s long-term water source and, on Tuesday, a recall election that could snuff out her four-year term at the halfway point.

Ms. Weaver, who is black and the first woman to hold her post, blames racism, sexism and petty politics for the recall. She said the election has become a distraction from the urgent work of shoring up Flint’s shaky finances and re-establishing confidence in the drinking water.

“I think we’ve played a bad hand very well, very nicely,” Ms. Weaver said in an interview at her office, where a lobby television displays information about lead contamination. She added: “You wait for a woman to come and clean things up, and then here you come and want to take it.”

But Ms. Weaver’s opponents — 17 names will appear on the ballot along with hers — dismiss her as a political amateur who has run Flint like a fief, failed to engage with the City Council and further eroded the public’s already battered faith in government. The candidate who receives the most votes on Tuesday will serve out the remainder of the term.

“The mayor is trying to turn this into a racial campaign, and it has nothing to do with me being white and her being an African-American female,” said Scott Kincaid, a longtime city councilman and labor-union employee who is widely considered the main challenger in the recall. “It has to do with her inability to govern the City of Flint.”

It has been more than three years since a state-appointed emergency manager made a cost-saving switch in Flint’s drinking water source, which led to discoloration, lead poisoning and a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. As the scope of the contamination was becoming clear, Ms. Weaver defeated the incumbent mayor in 2015 by staking her campaign on solving the water crisis and promising to bring in resources to help residents.

Life and politics remain upended here by the water. Many Flint residents, including Ms. Weaver, still use bottled water to drink and to brush their teeth, even though tests show the tap water is improving.

“We don’t trust,” said Ms. Weaver, a psychologist who had never before held elected office. “Something that’s difficult to re-establish is trust, when you’ve been lied to at every level of government.”

Ms. Weaver inherited a city that had struggled long before the water turned toxic. About half as many people live here now as when the auto industry was booming, and 41 percent of the 97,000 current residents live in poverty. Flint’s murder rate is consistently among the country’s worst.

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Scott Kincaid, a Flint City Council member who is widely seen as the main challenger in the recall election, speaking at a forum last month. Credit Terray Sylvester/The Flint Journal-MLive.com, via Associated Press

Over the years, voters in this heavily Democratic city have blamed politicians for some of that decline, successfully recalling one mayor and attempting to oust others. Michigan governors have been criticized for sending in emergency managers to run Flint and take control away from local leaders elected by residents. In one sure sign of disgust with the entire political system, a pet pig named Giggles made national news here in 2015 as a write-in candidate for mayor, a mock campaign rooted in dissatisfaction with the human options.

Ms. Weaver’s opponents say she has further tainted the public’s perception of city government. Among their grievances: Her attempt to do business with a trash-collection company that has been accused of corruption elsewhere; the lack of working relationships with Council members; and a long-running dispute about where Flint should get its drinking water in the future and how much residents should pay.

“There’s been a constant, general incompetence,” said Kate Fields, a City Council member who is supporting Mr. Kincaid in the recall. Ms. Fields has accused the Weaver administration of corruption and complained to the state about her campaign practices.

Stirring intense debate, Flint police officers have knocked on the doors of people whose names appeared on recall petitions against Ms. Weaver to ask if they had in fact signed the document. The county clerk, John Gleason, who certified the petitions, called that “voter intimidation and harassment.”

Ms. Weaver denied any wrongdoing and said the criticisms were politically motivated. Far from intimidating voters, Ms. Weaver said, the police were investigating allegations that people had been duped into signing recall petitions.

“I guess if the police are investigating you, they’re going to show up at your house, at your job,” said Ms. Weaver, who filed and later dropped a lawsuit challenging the validity of the recall. “They were just doing their job.”

Ms. Weaver said her two years in office have been marked by progress in the midst of crisis. She points to state and federal disaster assistance funding, a fire station that reopened, new businesses downtown and a city-led effort to replace tainted pipes. So far, more than 5,200 houses have had pipes replaced.

Eric Mays, the mayor’s only consistent ally on the City Council, said Ms. Weaver has done well and that some of her opposition seems rooted in jealousy about her national fame. “Everybody is trying to be in the news, and they’ve kind of lost focus,” he said.

Others see it differently. At a forum last month at the Flint Public Library, a parade of mayoral hopefuls blasted Ms. Weaver’s policies; her collaboration with Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan; and her handling of the water crisis. “Mayor Weaver won’t be for the people,” said one candidate, Arthur Woodson, who accused of her corruption and of using the water crisis for political gain.

City Council members supporting Mr. Kincaid accused Ms. Weaver of injecting race into the campaign in a city where about 55 percent of residents are African-American and where votes have long been cast along racial lines. Though their posts are officially nonpartisan, Ms. Weaver and the City Council members are Democrats.

“I don’t like the fact that they came in playing the race-card game,” said Wantwaz Davis, a City Council member who is black and who signed the recall petition. “It’s not about blacks against whites.”

Mr. Gleason, the county clerk, said he was afraid that the recall had only exacerbated a long-festering sense in Flint that the political system is broken, that elections do not matter and that votes do not count. He predicted “a very dismal turnout” on Tuesday, perhaps around 13 percent of eligible voters.