Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich is nearing a full decade of service in Michigan’s Legislature, and he doesn’t mince words while looking back:
“I think we’re going to look back at the tenure of [Republican former] Gov. [Rick] Snyder as one of the worst things to happen to Michigan,” the Democrat said when asked about efforts to ameliorate the Flint water crisis by the governor whose tenure in the statehouse overlapped almost entirely with Ananich’s. “It was a completely wasted decade, and I think we’ll be living with his legacy for many, many generations.”
Despite his lament over Snyder’s stewardship of Michigan, Ananich is confident that his term, which expires in 2022, will end on a high note.
In a sit-down interview with the Advance this week, the Flint native and former city council member expressed a hard-earned optimism about everything from Flint’s future to the state’s controversial new social studies education standards, as well as the prospect of a bipartisan deal to fund Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed repairs to Michigan’s roads.
“There’s no point raising people’s taxes and not fixing the problem,” Ananich said regarding Whitmer’s road-funding plan. He added that Snyder’s 2015 roads law was “one of the most disingenuous things [he’d] ever seen happen in this body.”
That’s a high bar to clear, given the turbulent post-recession decade out of which Michigan is just emerging — but the front-row seat Ananich has held through it all may have given him one of the state’s most complete perspectives.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: What do you think is the most important thing that still needs to be done regarding the Flint water crisis?
Ananich: It’s hard to say one. We need to get the pipes replaced, which should be done this year. That final phase will help give some comfort to people that the infrastructure, primarily the lead lines, have been replaced, which hopefully lead to the restoration of trust.
That’s a big problem. People don’t trust their government; they don’t trust the water, and I think once we have the pipes replaced fully that’ll help start to build that back. It’s going to be a process; we understand that.
And then there are a number of health care and early education programs for folks who either test highly for lead, or were exposed to lead, which is almost everyone, we will have those remediation programs to help deal with the effects or potential effects of lead poisoning.
Michigan Advance: If nothing else, people have learned over the course of this episode that it’s a massively complex bureaucratic issue, in addition to being a scientific issue and a social justice issue. Given how many moving parts there are, what do you see as the role that you can play in assisting [with its solution] from the Legislature?
Ananich: The role has changed as we’ve gone along. Next week will be the fifth year [anniversary] of when the actual water switch [from Detroit to Flint river water] happened.
So in the beginning, I was yelling and screaming from the top of my lungs to get people to acknowledge the work that Dr. Mona [Hanna-Attisha] and many of the doctors and other folks were doing, and basically to get them to stop lying and stop attacking those folks.
And then we move towards, ‘OK, let’s fix this problem and at least get this water switched back over.’ And then it’s a state of emergency declared, and then it was sort of getting money to fix the problem.
Now it’s sort of just finishing the job, which is pushing to make sure we have enough resources for all the programs that we need to do, because with lead, it stays in your system forever. If you’re younger, in particular, or have a compromised immune system, or you’re an elderly person who may have immune system issues in the first place, you have to make sure these services are provided for quite some time. The effects of how lead will manifest itself, it’s not the same with every person.
So I see my role now as the person has got to continue to fight, to continue [obtaining] resources, continuing to advocate, because … you’re talking about it right now, but I can say now that my requests to speak about water in Flint are going down every day, right?
The exposure, the national exposure, is gone, and the national reporters are gone. It’s just so now I have to fight for… OK, we put the bones in place, we laid the foundation for the programs, now we’ve just got to fight for them. It’s changed from the beginning. That’s for sure.
Michigan Advance: What you hope to see from a potential Republican counter-proposal to what Gov. Whitmer has put on the table [her $2.5 billion road-funding plan]?
Ananich: I just hope it’s real. We’ve been doing gimmicks for the last, I mean, many, many decades, but definitely under Gov. Snyder.
And they [Republicans] came up with a joke of a roads plan three years ago, and that’s why it’s not working and it’s why the roads are getting worse. So I’m hoping that whatever proposal comes out is something that we can actually negotiate off of.
There are people that don’t like the governor’s plan [a 45-cent gas tax increase], but there are very few people who are offering an alternative plan. So I want that plan to be real enough that we can actually say, ‘OK, well, let’s take this component or that component; let’s do this or that.’
No more sort of smoke and mirrors. We’ve got to have something real; that’s all I really want.
Michigan Advance: In terms of real numbers, is there a threshold for the gas tax under which Senate Democrats would not accept a counterproposal?
Ananich: Well, no. I mean, as long as it’s in the $2.5 billion range [revenue raised], that’s a serious proposal. Right? There’s no point raising people’s taxes and not fixing the problem. If we’re going to do this, it needs to go towards roads and infrastructure and fix the problem.
That’s why I voted against it last time [Snyder’s 2015 plan]. It was not enough to raise people’s taxes and tell them you’re going to fix it when there is no way you could possibly do it. It’s one of the most disingenuous things I’ve ever seen happen in this body and that’s why I wasn’t going to be a part of it.
Michigan Advance: If it comes to that, would you be willing to stay in this august Capitol building all through the summer, as Gov. Whitmer has proposed?
Ananich: I mean, when a session’s called, I’m here. So I think we can solve this problem in the next few months, because… you know, these issues don’t get better the longer you delay them; they actually get harder. So sometimes we just have to make a tough decision and it is what we’re going to do, and we’ll negotiate and figure it out. But I’ll stick around until we have to get it done.
Michigan Advance: Gov. Whitmer previously had your job as the Senate minority leader, and I’m curious as to whether you’ve spoken with her at all about what her experience doing it was like, and if there was any particular insight or advice she gave you.
Ananich: Yeah, first off, she was a mentor of mine. In 2013, after the special election [to replace then-Sen. John Gleason, now Genesee County clerk] we worked very closely together. When I got the job, she was somebody who I would, along with two other Genesee County people, [former Lt. Gov.] John Cherry and [former state Sen. Bob] Emerson who in recent years both had the job, I would speak to, as well. So I still speak to Gov. Whitmer almost every day.
It’s an unusual job because there’s not a lot you can ask about it, right? You kind of have to learn as you go. Because, I mean, there are things you can learn from a former person who was on the job, but then there are different situations you have to deal with in the now.
So it’s good to get insight, it’s good to get advice, but sometimes you just kind of learn as you’re going. Now that I’m in my second term [as leader], I have a better understanding of the kind of problems are going to come before me, but, you know, it’s still a different thing every day.
Michigan Advance: In some ways, she’s now still in a similar position to that of being in the minority, where she’s facing a Republican-controlled Legislature that is not necessarily amenable to her policy goals. Was there any advice specifically with regard to effectively making policy from that kind of position that she gave you?
Ananich: Well, she wasn’t in that spot. She was in a completely Republican world when she was in my job. So I would change it a little bit and say basically, when we have dialogue now, with her role as the governor and my role as a much closer minority leader — I mean, the Republicans control the Legislature in both chambers, but it’s a very thin margin.
We have a long way to go before this gets done, and there’s a lot of conversations that are going to happen, there’s going to be a lot of give and take. I think some people look at compromise as a negative word. And I mean, I think anybody who wakes up every day and says, ‘All my ideas are the only ideas that are worth exploring, and anybody else’s ideas are bad,’ probably shouldn’t be in this job.
So if you’re not willing to have a dialogue and say, ‘OK, you know, I like what you’re saying — I mean, it’s not where I come from, but I see what you’re suggesting — I think I can take that; would you be willing to take this.’ I mean, Gov. Whitmer is very good at that. She’s very good at seeing multiple ways to deal with problems and different people’s perspectives, and she understands that sometimes you have to compromise to get these things done.
So I’m still confident that we’re going to get something done on [auto] insurance reform. I’m still confident to get something done on talent and the goal of 65 percent of folks reaching some sort of college attainment, whether it’s a community college, certificate or from a university, and getting the roads done.
You know, we may not be on the same page right now, but I think we keep talking and trying to solve the problems in a real productive way. There’s no reason why we can’t figure it out by the time we’re done.
So I generally look at it, and she does the same way, that just because we have a disagreement now, it does not mean we won’t come to a conclusion later. And I just don’t close the door until the until the door is slammed and the lock’s turned. And I don’t think we’re anywhere near that.
Michigan Advance: What will you do next after your term expires?
Ananich: My understanding is that the last minority leader just gets to become governor next. (laughs). So I’m just going to wait around and do that.
Michigan Advance: Sure.
Ananich: No, I made a decision a long time ago, when I lost my first office — I ran for state representative in 2004. And I will admit, as a young kid, I had all these plans of doing all these things, and [now] I don’t plan the next thing. I just try to do a really good job at what I’m doing, and I don’t plan on the next phase of my life.
When a door opens up, I’ll decide if I’m going to walk in it or not. And I just assume that by the time when I’m term-limited out of here [in 2023] that there’ll be a door that opens up that I want to take. And that’s what I’ll do. You know, I’m not nervous yet; we’ll see in a couple of years if that hasn’t happened yet, but so far, I’m OK.
Michigan Advance: Universally relatable.
Ananich: Exactly, right.
Michigan Advance: As a former teacher yourself, I was curious as to what your thoughts were about the recent controversy over social studies education standards.
Ananich: I mean, there are there are activists in the education realm. They want to politicize and distort history for their own conservative, ultra-conservative in many cases, radical philosophy, and it has no place. I was a social studies teacher; it has no place.
In today’s curriculum, we should be teaching kids to think; we should be teaching kids to do problem solving; we should be teaching kids to look at our history from a reflective lens. It’s not a judgmental piece; I don’t think you can use today’s values and say, ‘In 1776’ … I don’t think you can go back and do that, but you can look back and ask the tough questions about why they made the decisions they made.
They [conservatives] want everything to fit their worldview, and I think that’s inappropriate. You know, I’m hopeful that those sort of activists don’t have their way, because I think it’d be really destructive for our social studies curriculum.
Michigan Advance: [Flint mayor] Karen Weaver recently announced she’s running for re-election. Have you given any thought to a potential endorsement in that race?
Ananich: Well, I’ll look at the field; the filing deadline is next week. It sounds like I’m copping out when I say this, and I acknowledge that … I’ve never really done a lot of endorsing in any race, because I’ve never really asked people to endorse me. It’s unusual in politics; in politics [candidates] usually line up a list of everyone who’s endorsed them. I’m just a firm believer in knocking on doors, telling people, telling the voters what I think and letting them make a decision.
I’ll vote for somebody, and if they ask for help, sometimes I’ll help them, but more often than not, I don’t generally endorse. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t … I’m not really completely answering your question, but I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Like I said, I’ll take a look to see who’s in the field, I’ve pretty good working relationship with the mayor.
I’ve been more of a believer sometimes in that you’ve got to run on your own resume and let the voters decide. I do my job, and I have a certain set of things I have to do here, and that’s getting resources for Flint and the other communities that I represent. And I’ll let the citizens of Flint decide who they want to have representing them, because whoever’s in the job is who I’m going to work with.
Michigan Advance: Given how your tenures representing Flint have overlapped, what has that working relationship [with Weaver] been like?
Ananich: So it’s been the last three years this is the fourth year.
She lives in my neighborhood. I talk to her on a regular basis. We were having breakfast for a while, and then I think she got busy and didn’t have time to do it anymore. I was with her on Sunday at a church anniversary.
I’m also very close to [state] Rep. [and Flint mayoral candidate] Sheldon Neeley, we’ve worked together since [our] City Council days. You know, there’s other people in the race; we’ll see by the time the filing deadline comes. You know, I try to advocate for the citizens, and quite often the resources go to the city or to a school district, and I work with department heads and me and my staff are always available for her and the people who work for her.
Michigan Advance: While Gov. Snyder was still in office, he passed rules decreasing the threshold for lead and copper levels in the state’s water. There’s a feeling among some Democrats that by not securing funding to assist with meeting those goals, the former governor was sort of saddling the new administration and Legislature with those costs. Do you agree with that?
Ananich: I think we’re going to look back at the tenure of Gov. Snyder as one of the worst things to happen to Michigan.
The massive amount of liabilities he left us with, obviously what he’s done to my community in Flint, but also with the unemployment system, the people that they accused of fraud when they found that there was almost none, there, the correction system, the abuse of veterans … for the economy that we had over the last decade, starting under [former] President Obama with the recovery of the auto industry, it was a completely wasted decade. And I think we’ll be living with his legacy for many, many generations.
So I think on that question alone, I think [the lead and copper law] was a PR stunt. Like most of it was, it was never about actually dealing with or addressing the lead issues we have in our state.
Flint is a canary in the coal mine, and through the incompetence of the Snyder administration and emergency managers we saw that highlighted across the world in Flint, but we have lead issues all across the state and across this country. We had an opportunity to address it in a real thoughtful way, and we could have led the country. And you know, like most things, he dropped the ball, as he did with so many other things.
Michigan Advance: What is your relationship like with [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Shirkey?
Ananich: Pretty good. I met Mike when we first got elected; his business partner is a guy from Flint. So a friend of mine, a Flint developer, introduced me to Mike even before we got elected. We served together in the House and then obviously in the last term we talked a lot. … I have a good relationship with the speaker [Lee Chatfield] and the minority leader [Christine Greig], as well, but it’s longer and a little bit closer with Mike.
Michigan Advance: Have there been any updates regarding the workplace complaint against your chief of staff, John Mulcrone?
Ananich: No. We’ve put out a statement about that. They found that there was absolutely no merit to the allegation, you know, three years ago, and I don’t think there’s any update on that. [Ed: Sen. Ananich’s statement in response to a post on the political blog Electablog alleging sexism in the office said that he was “prepared to act in accordance with whatever the investigation found, and [the Senate Business Office] ultimately found that there was no evidence of gender-based discrimination.”]
Michigan Advance: Finally, being a Genesee County native myself, I have to ask this: Where is the best Coney in Flint?
Ananich: Oh man, Starlite.
Michigan Advance: That is also my answer.
Ananich: Oh, I love that. All right.