May 4 2016 12:12 AM

Flint crisis a windfall for Schuette as AG looks toward governor’s race

People are poisoned. Government workers face criminal charges. Gov. Rick Snyder is vilified, his reputation shredded.

For everyone but Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the lead contaminated water crisis in Flint is a disaster. For Schuette, it's a political gift.

Schuette is positioning himself to succeed Snyder, mostly by pandering to the state's rightest of right-wing factions.

He opposes marriage equality, hiring his former solicitor General to argue his case in the U.S. Supreme Court. And lost. He used his department to try and overturn the Affordable Care Act. Another loss. Ignoring a Supreme Court ruling that life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional, he fought to retain what justices deemed “cruel and unusual punishment” for youths already convicted in state courts. And he lost again.

By announcing criminal charges last week against two state employees and a Flint city worker, Schuette is refashioning his partisan image. They provide a populist plank for his expected gubernatorial run in 2018. Targeting unelected government bureaucrats should help Michigan's ultimate political insider — a former congressman, judge and now AG — to pose as an outsider, the fashionable vote-trolling strategy employed by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Right now, Schuette's “Defender of Flint” initiative is a political winner. But what he'll have to address eventually is why he waited so long. His lack of action is as indefensible as Snyder's. Problems with Flint's water surfaced immediately after the city's emergency managers ordered that it be sourced from the Flint River rather from the Detroit. That was in April 2014. By October, General Motors had stopped using Flint water because it was corroding its machines.

Starting in spring 2014, The Flint Journal and Michigan Public Radio reported on the taste, color and contamination of Flint water. The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News wrote about the problems in January 2015. Schuette and his staff followed these reports and had the expertise and authority to investigate. And did nothing.

It wasn't until January 2015 — 21 months after the water crisis began — that Schuette announced that his department would investigate the Flint contamination to determine whether Michigan laws were violated.

Until this winter, Flint — an impoverished Democratic city — just wasn't a priority. It's not a city where the attorney general invests much political capital or gets much support. He received just 42 percent of the vote compared with Democrat Mark Totten's 55 percent in the 2014 election.

Schuette's office cranks out scores of investigations each year, most of them much less serious than what happened in Flint. During the months he did nothing about Flint these are some of the actions he highlights on his website as noteworthy. Some examples:

— In January 2015, Schuette issued a consumer alert to advise Michigan citizens who have the goal of adopting a healthier lifestyle in 2015 how to make educated choices about health club and fitness center memberships.

— In August 2015, he issued a letter to the governors of all 50 states urging them to impose state-based sanctions against Iran.

— In September 2015, along with the now discredited Department of Environmental Quality director, Dan Wyant, Schuette promoted his participation in an agreement with Enbridge Partners L.P. banning heavy crude oil from the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge has never used the line for heavy crude.

There were of course, real law enforcement successes, mixed in with these political stunts. But there was definitely enough flab in the attorney general's operation to shift some investigative and legal talent to the crisis unfolding in Flint.

Incredibly, even the emergence of Legionnaires' disease, which came to the attention of state officials in early 2015, didn't merit attention. To date,12 people are thought to have contracted the disease and died from Flint River water.

The political opportunity wasn't as obvious then as it is now, and Schuette has promised that more charges are coming. He's set aside $1.5 million for an investigation headed by special prosecutor Todd Flood and former FBI Agent Andy Arena. The appointment of Flood, a former Wayne County prosecutor, immediately raised the issue of cronyism. According to reporting by MLive's Emily Lawler, “Flood's donations to Schuette came in 2010, 2013 and 2014 and totaled $10,200. In 2013 Flood exceeded the legal contribution limit — $3,400, at the time — and Schuette's campaign issued a refund.”

Additional charges could mean targeting more officials from the Snyder administration. The governor has been weakened by the scandal and there is little risk and much reward for Schuette leveling charges at more senior officials. Undercutting Snyder and his people — particularly Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a potential gubernatorial rival — makes political sense. And it also may provide some measure of justice, some much needed accountability, for the state's crimes against the people of Flint.