Dan Kildee is no stranger to leading during a crisis. After all, the Flint Democrat had been in Congress for just a couple years when the Flint water crisis began.
“That was one of those moments where I knew why I was there. I knew exactly why I was in Congress,” Kildee said in an interview last month. “I had to go to bat for my hometown because they only had one member of Congress, and I had to persuade a whole bunch of people to help me out with Flint.”
Still, the current moment — with a global pandemic, an economic recession and nationwide protests over police brutality coinciding with the census and a critical election — is unlike anything he’s seen during his time in office.
“I think about 2020 as being a year that will be remembered for decades,” Kildee said. “The way I approach it is to continue asking myself how I will answer the question to my grandchildren about what did I do during the struggles of 2020, the same way a lot of people now talk about 1968 as this really critical year in the history of the country or the 1930s with the New Deal.
“There are these inflection points that occur during the course of our country’s history; we are in the middle of one right now. Every year matters, every bill matters, every member of Congress matters, every election matters. But some of them just take on a much bigger role in the shaping of our society, and I just think 2020 is one of those years.”
While Kildee has had to deal with the fallout of a public health crisis impacting his 5th Congressional District the past, he has new roles in the House that have changed how he is addressing the current moment.
Namely, Kildee serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and is part of House leadership as the chief deputy whip for the Democratic caucus.
Rather than simply advocating for his constituents in Flint, Bay City and the Thumb region, Kildee also is now responsible for communicating with many other members of Congress to ensure that their priorities and concerns are addressed in legislation that the House Democratic majority progresses.
“It’s assumed that when we have a Democratic caucus we produce legislation that we just need to get the bills going and get them through committee and go to the floor, but it takes a lot to get 218 votes when you have a caucus as diverse as ours,” Kildee said. “It’s the most diverse Congress and, by far, the most diverse caucus in the history of the country. That’s good; that’s a strength; but taking that strength and turning it into unity isn’t as simple as it looks.”
That diversity falls along both demographic lines – like race and gender – but also ideological lines. Bridging the divide between progressives in the Democratic caucus – like U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) – and moderates – like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) – is an important part of getting the votes necessary to pass a piece of legislation.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who serves on the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said the key is to listen to what other members have to say.
“John Dingell used to say that God gave us two ears and a mouth for a reason, and I think that leadership needs to be able to listen,” she said, referencing her late husband, the former Dean of Congress. “Every member comes from a different district that have different experiences, that represent people who have different jobs, different families, different life experiences and different hopes and aspirations. But they share the same values.
“And someone in leadership needs to be able to pull people together, to take those disparate viewpoints and find the common ground and actually make progress for where you want to go.”
Kildee said when he listens to other members of Congress, he’s not listening to refute what they say; rather, he’s listening to learn about their districts’ needs.
“I think, for the most part, it is in trusting — encouraging members to trust one another and respect one another, and to not get into the position of believing that you know that what’s right for me and my district is necessarily going to be right for somebody else’s,” Kildee said. “My assumption is that the people I’m working with know their districts and the people they’re working with better than anybody else. One really important principle is to never try to tell a member of Congress what’s good for their district, because they know better than anyone. I see people make that mistake a lot, and it’s one that I think is a fatal mistake for a person in leadership.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Kildee “has proudly carried on his family’s long legacy of service, becoming a tremendous champion for the people of Flint and all Michiganders” as part of leadership.
“As a powerful member of the Ways and Means Committee, his persistent, dissatisfied leadership has delivered critical resources to strengthen and develop his community and ensure that our budget remains a reflection of our nation’s values,” Pelosi said. “Congressman Kildee’s bold vision and expert guidance as chief deputy whip has been invaluable to House Democrats as we work to advance progress that make a difference in the lives of hard-working families in Michigan and across the country.”
Recognizing that any legislation passed by the House will have to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate to have any chance of becoming law, Kildee also works with members of the other party to get legislation passed.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) said Michigan’s delegation often works in a bipartisan way, but cited Kildee as a member he often looks to for support on issues.
“With Dan, he’s an honest broker. He’s not going to pull the wool over your eyes; he’s not going to tell you something that’s flat-out wrong,” Upton said. “Without exception, there’s not legislation that I’ve worked on that I haven’t tried to make bipartisan, whether I’ve been in the majority or the minority. And Dan is one that I reached out to both when I was in the majority and now in the minority.”
But separating his own views and advocacy for the needs of his district from his role in House leadership hasn’t been easy for Kildee.
“I have my own views — and I have my own very strong views — on a lot of subjects,” Kildee said. “And the hardest part is recognizing that we can’t always get everything we want in the next bill. That’s something that we all kind of know, but then being in a position of leadership where I have to help bring folks along, it’s hard. It’s hard to compromise. But it’s necessary.”
“Sometimes instinct says we shouldn’t compromise, and I have to continually remind myself that sometimes change comes all at once, but most of the time change comes in increments,” he added. “And if we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, then often we miss a chance to make a real difference.”
Kildee is running in a relatively safe Democratic seat, facing either Republicans Earl Lackie or former state Rep. Tim Kelly in November. If Democrats win back control of the Senate and the White House in November, Kildee imagines the first half of 2021 being spent on a sweeping policy agenda, possibly similar in scope to the New Deal.
“I think we have to look at the first half of the year in 2021 as being a time for a really big and bold agenda that covers a whole series of issues.,” Kildee said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be one big, unified, single act; the New Deal itself, for example, was a series of legislation that all fit together. All those things that were part of that era have their corollaries in the 21st century: police reform; infrastructure investment; significant improvements in education; finishing the task of providing universal access to health care; guaranteeing clean water.”
“All of these fights that are discreet, separate, battles in some ways, fit really nicely together in the sense that they’re all about taking the next step as a nation. This country’s never been perfect, and it still isn’t, but the whole idea is to be in search of a more perfect union, to get there one step at a time. I think we have a chance to take a whole series of really big steps next year.”
Taking advantage of the platform
Kildee’s new positions have given him a larger platform to advocate for issues important to his district, and to Michigan as a whole, which Upton said has benefited the entire Michigan delegation.
“He’s respected; he’s on the Ways and Means Committee — if you get to Congress the two committees you want to be on are Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce, bar none, and it’s a gauntlet within your own party to get on either one of those two committees,” Upton said. “So it’s a real plus. It helps our delegation. As we’re fighting for the autos, as we fight to clean up PFAS on federal lands, having someone with Dan’s stature as a cosponsor or participant in the debate helps our state.”
But Community Foundation of Greater Flint President Isaiah Oliver said Kildee hasn’t gotten too caught up in national debates and has remained focused on his constituents —even with the new responsibilities that come with leadership positions.
“He is magic in some way that he has made no one feel less important than they were before he took on this additional responsibility while also taking advantage of the platform that he now has in leadership to advance issues that matter for us,” Oliver said. “I think Dan is just doing a good job making sure that the local issues show up in the national conversations and that just comes from being in both spaces and understanding how to navigate them.”
Oliver said Kildee hasn’t sought out leadership positions just for the sake of having a higher title; rather, he has always been in pursuit of the same outcomes on issues important to his constituents.
“I think he’s just riding the wave of what good leadership looks like and how good leadership shows up for its community,” Oliver said. “I never thought that he was aiming towards a seat, I think he was always pushing for a cause and to fill a gap and opportunities continued to present themselves for him.”
For his part, Kildee said he feels like his job has always remained the same — even if the title has changed over the years.
“I feel like I’ve never really changed jobs in my whole life. I’ve changed business cards, and I have different tools available to me based on the role that I play, but the job is always the same. The job is to try to create better opportunity for the people of my community,” Kildee said.
“The goal for serving in public office or advancing into other roles is simply to get a stronger, more efficient and more complete set of tools in my hands. If I can get a toolbox that comes with being in a stronger position, I feel like I’m still doing the same job, but I’m doing it more effectively and more efficiently. I think too often people run for these positions because they’re interested in the position itself. All these roles do is give you more ability, more authority to do the things that you care about for the people that you care about.”
Still, Upton predicted that Kildee may have future promotions in store.
“He’s only moving up the ladder; he’s not moving down,” Upton said. “Life can’t get much better: in leadership, on a great committee with real jurisdiction, respected by both sides of the aisle.”
Other members of Kildee’s class in Congress, who were elected in 2012, have also sought to raise their leadership profile recently, including Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is running for Senate, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who unsuccessfully ran for president.
Kildee said that could be just the start of a generational change in leadership, but was unsure where he may fit into that.
“It’s inevitable, because they always come. It always happens. What role that opens up for me, I have no idea at this point in time,” Kildee said. “If a different role presents itself, I’ll seize upon it. I don’t define leadership as a noun, I define leadership as a verb – it’s what you do. Whatever role you have, the most important variable is not the title that comes with it or even the formal authority that comes with it, but what you choose to do with that role.”
Kildee, who is 61 years old, is older than Kennedy (39) and O’Rourke (47) but younger than other members of leadership, like Pelosi (80) or Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who’s 79.
Oliver said this allows Kildee to act as a bridge between the two groups.
“I think he shows up as a senior member while also coming with a class of folks who are up and coming, if you will,”Oliver said.
That seniority — he’s dean of the Michigan House delegation — is something that Kildee said is needed after a number of legends of Michigan’s congressional delegation retired in the last decade, including John Dingell, John Conyers, Sandy Levin, and Kildee’s uncle, Dale Kildee, who held the same seat in the House.
“Between Conyers, Dingell and Levin, they had something like 140 years of seniority when I got there. In January 2019, when the new Congress came in, all of us in total had 14 years of seniority on the Democratic side, and I only had six of those myself,” Kildee said. “There’s nothing any of us in the Michigan delegation can do to replace John Dingell or John Conyers or Sandy Levin, but we have to continue their work.”
Upton said his chief of staff, Joan Hillebrands, who has known Kildee for several years, has a nickname for him: “governor,” as he briefly ran for the office in 2010 and very publicly considered doing so again in 2018. He decided instead to run for reelection to Congress, while former state Senate Majority Leader Gretchen Whitmer ended up winning the Democratic nomination and the governorship.
Most of Kildee’s career before running for Congress was spent in executive positions, including as county treasurer, chair of the Genesee County Land Bank and president of the Center for Community Progress. In those positions, Kildee noted he had more ability to maneuver freely than he does in the House – something that he said can be frustrating for him.
“I was always able to make decisions and execute them myself. And there is some frustration with a system that is cumbersome and slow and is designed to make it difficult to get things done,” Kildee said.
Still, Kildee said he does not regret his decision to run for reelection in 2018 rather than launch a campaign for governor.
“Not at all. Especially now, in retrospect, because my main purpose for thinking about running for governor is I wanted to make sure that we have a Democratic governor and I felt like I was a strong candidate,” Kildee said. “The combination of the fact that we have a governor who’s a good governor, who won the election as a Democrat and is doing a very good job, and I’ve been able to continue what I think is a fundamental fight for the heart of our democratic system, I have no regret.”
Should Kildee decide to run for governor at some point down the road, Upton said he would make a strong candidate for the job.
“Running statewide – I thought about running statewide a couple times – it’s hard. I made the right decision not to run. You totally upend your life,” Upton said. “But I think that if he chose to do that … he’d be a strong candidate, he would be. Michigan is a purple state, you need to have friends on both sides. They’re going to look at your record and not want a partisan person but one who can get things done.”
That relationship-building – with other members of Congress and with constituents in his district – is the key to Kildee’s leadership style, Oliver said, citing a speech Kildee gave at a protest over police brutality.
“Dan found a way to barely bring up federal government but to talk about the commitment that the institutions that are responsible for supporting and protecting men of color could play a stronger and better role in advocating for their voices. It was so thoughtful,” Oliver said. “He didn’t come across as a pompous congressman who was coming in to talk about what the federal government could do for these young men, but he talked to them in a very intimate — even though it was a crowd of over 300 — a very intimate and personal way about what his commitment was to them.
“And I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know that there’s another congressional leader that would have been able to make that connection without lifting up the platform that he sits on as a savior.’”