Michigan Democrats face off over water, pipeline issues on primary day

Recent water crises and dispute over a controversial pipeline are playing a major role in the midterms.

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed speaks with the news media after campaigning with New York Democrat candidate for Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally on the campus of Wayne State University July 28, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed speaks with the news media after campaigning with New York Democrat candidate for Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally on the campus of Wayne State University July 28, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. CREDIT: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As Michigan grapples with another water crisis and growing calls to address a controversial, aging pipeline, primary races across the state have centered increasingly on environmental concerns, with such issues likely to play a leading role going into November’s general election.

That’s especially true for Democrats, with a number of candidates touting detailed environmental plans and policies as they head into Tuesday’s primaries. Campaigns and advocates that spoke with ThinkProgress in the lead-up to the primaries noted the prevailing role water issues have played in the platforms of many candidates. Green jobs have also been pointed to as a way to revive the state’s economy, which has faltered along with the decline of the auto industry.

One race in particular has drawn the attention of green groups and activists. The Democratic gubernatorial primary has increasingly pitted former Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer against Abdul El-Sayed, who previously served as executive director for Detroit’s health department. (A third Democratic candidate, Shri Thanedar, trailed both in a recent poll despite initially holding second place.)

Both candidates have made environmental issues a cornerstone of their respective campaigns. Whitmer’s website highlights her pledge to protect the Great Lakes region and prioritize climate issues, something El-Sayed’s website also emphasizes. Each candidate notes their commitment to tackling the state’s water issues.

That growing emphasis on water in Michigan reflects the toll of the past few years. A water crisis in the city of Flint captured national attention several years ago, dragging the state into the spotlight.


Following a change in the city’s water source in 2014, residents quickly began reporting discolored water and strange smells. Testing would later reveal that over 100,000 residents had been exposed to lead, the result of improper water treatment. A state of emergency was later declared in 2016, with the city reliant on publicly-supplied bottled water. Two years later, Flint residents are still without reliable drinking water.

But looming in the background of Tuesday’s primaries is another water crisis. Two Michigan communities in Kalamazoo County were given bottled water two weeks ago and warned not to drink from the tap after chemicals were found in their water source.

Testing conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) yielded “high amounts” of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the water. PFAS can lead to severe health ramifications, impacting the immune system and increasing the risk of cancer and liver disease, among other hazards.

Problems like these — coupled with other controversies, like the water shutoffs that have plagued Detroit — are a leading issue for voters. So is the Enbridge Line 5, a pipeline passing under the Straits of Mackinac, an environmentally sensitive space between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Built in 1953, the aging line carries around 540,000 barrels of crude oil per day in perilous proximity to fisheries and drinking water. As of 2017, the line had spilled at least 1.1 million gallons of oil in the last 50 years, much of it in forest areas due to construction mishaps. A May report highlighted the numerous risks associated with the pipelines, coming just a month after a ship’s anchor left dents in Line 5. While residents have called for the line to be shut down, the state’s Republican leadership has largely waffled on the issue.

Democratic candidates know this, not least of all those running for governor. And despite evident similarities between candidates, that race has become increasingly heated. While Whitmer leads, polling has shown El-Sayed closing in.


El-Sayed’s candidacy appeals to climate activists for a number of reasons — he was inspired to run for governor after the water crisis in Flint and he has consistently spoken to the need to tackle such problems in the state.

In an email to ThinkProgress, El-Sayed singled out water issues as the most pressing environmental concern facing Michigan.

“We are a state that’s defined by our water. 21% of the world’s fresh water is right here in Michigan. And the fact that people in Flint can’t get access to clean water, and people in Detroit can’t get access to water at all, is an abomination. We need to commit to a full upgrade of our water infrastructure,” El-Sayed wrote, going on to highlight the issues plaguing Line 5.

If elected, the 33-year-old El-Sayed would make history as the first Muslim governor in the country. He would also prove Democratic Socialism has weight in the Midwest. Endorsed by both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and rising Democratic party star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, El-Sayed has seen growing support from progressives hoping for a shift to the left in Michigan.

But Whitmer also has strong support. The Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter endorsed her candidacy based on a number of factors, including her support for the removal of Line 5 and her pledges to assist communities like Flint that have struggled with pollution.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Mike Berkowitz, the organization’s legislative and political director, called Whitmer “one of the most progressive environmental champions in the Michigan legislature” during her tenure there.


She spent 14 years in the state legislature where she got a perfect environmental voting score, established our state’s first clean energy law, introduced countless environmental protection bills, and was a true champion for the Great Lakes on the floor of the House and Senate,” Berkowitz wrote. (Whitmer’s scoring on various environmental issues is available here.) 

Water issues are also trickling down into other races. The former mayor of Flint, Dayne Walling, is running for a seat in Michigan’s House of Representatives, where he would represent three of Flint’s suburbs in addition to the city’s southwestern region.

Walling, a Democrat who for many is permanently tied to the city’s water crisis, is struggling to make a comeback with skeptical voters. Rep. Dan Kildee (D), who represents Flint, notably endorsed Walling’s leading opponent, John Cherry III.

While Walling grapples with the fallout from Flint’s tragedy, Michigan’s struggles are creating an opening for other candidates. Running for the 13th congressional district in Detroit to replace disgraced outgoing Rep. John Conyers (D), Rashida Tlaib is increasingly garnering attention from climate advocates over her campaign’s commitment to environmental justice.

Tlaib is a former state representative and Palestinian-American who has the opportunity of become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress in the United States.

She lists “environmental protection” on her website as one of the four leading components of her campaign. Calling out “big polluters”, Tlaib’s site emphasizes environmental racism and its impact on the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“They think because we’re not the richest communities, and because of the color of our skin, that they can get away with it,” the candidate’s website reads. “But I’m raising my family in this community and I’m not going to let them poison our air and pollute our water and dump waste on our soil.”

While her campaign was unavailable for comment to ThinkProgress in the busy lead-up to the election, environmental activists have expressed interest in Tlaib and lauded her platform. RL Miller, the co-founder and chair of the grassroots-funded super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, lent her support to Tlaib on Twitter, calling her a “terrific candidate.”

In an email to ThinkProgress, Miller doubled down on that support, commending her “progressive populist perspective” and noting her seeming fearlessness (Tlaib was notably removed by police when she disrupted a rally for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in August 2016.)

Tlaib is currently in a tight, three-person race with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Westland Mayor Bill Wild for the safely Democratic area. Following the victory of Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, her candidacy (and that of El-Sayed, among others) indicates that Michigan may prove fruitful for progressives hoping to make political inroads.

The Michigan primaries take place on August 7th, along with primaries in Kansas, Missouri, and Washington.