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Standing up for small Michigan cities

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Everyone knows that the city of Flint has seen better days. Its population is half what it was in 1970; the city has barely one-eighth the General Motors jobs that once existed.

“I’ve been an eyewitness to the biggest change any community can imagine,” Congressman Dan Kildee told me yesterday in his office in downtown Flint.

Kildee is a famous name in Flint; his uncle Dale was congressman there for thirty-six years; his nephew won reelection to his seat when he retired five years ago.

But while Dale Kildee was best known for education, Dan is a passionate advocate for cities – mainly, older manufacturing and industrial cities, and Flint in particular.

That isn’t a popular cause these days, but Kildee believes it is essential. Millions still live in cities like Flint and Saginaw, Muskegon and Bay City, not to mention Detroit. They are suffering from declining revenue and decaying infrastructure.

Kildee, who turned 57 this week, has been in politics and government his entire adult life, since he was elected to Flint’s school board when he was 18 years old. Most of his career has been in Flint and Genesee County, where he created an innovative land bank and successfully lobbied Lansing for legislation that enabled it to effectively fight blight.

Kildee thinks that as a nation and a state, we have the wrong priorities.

“Detroit gets all the attention, but small cities are hurting too,” he told me, not long after he came back from helping paint a Habitat for Humanity House with his staff.

“And the interesting thing is that every city that finds itself in this predicament thinks it’s unique,” he says, “when in fact, their problems are much alike – and rooted in causes that are largely beyond their control.” Generally, Kildee noted, the focus is on things like bloated and under-financed pension funds, on mismanagement and corruption.

“I’m not saying these can’t be important factors; think Kwame Kilpatrick,” he said. “But they are also largely symptoms.” When cities were flush with revenue, such things didn’t matter so much.

But now not only do they suffer from declining tax receipts, the state has repeatedly cut revenue sharing. “Federal policy towards cities is based on two faulty assumptions,” he said. “They are, that all cities are growing at some rate, and that all land appreciates in value.”

Obviously, that isn’t true. Kildee thinks we need to reexamine how we fund cities and metropolitan areas, look harder at sharing resources, and, especially, invest in infrastructure.

He says that despite being a low-seniority member in the minority party, he loves his job, loves being in Congress, where he works hard at finding ways and issues on which he can make common cause with his Republican colleagues.

Kildee knows there’s speculation that he may run for governor next time, and that it is something he admits he is considering. He flirted with running five years ago, but decided not to enter a contested Democratic primary in what turned out to be a very Republican year.

Most of all, he seems to want to make a difference for our older cities and their inhabitants in an era when that, and they, are no longer seen as hip.

I left thinking Congress could use a few dozen more members like him.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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