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News Brief: Kamala Harris, D.C. Violence Fallout, Flint Water Crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden has identified his first priority. He's calling for $1.9 trillion in new spending to help the U.S. economy navigate its way out of the pandemic.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The massive relief package he laid out includes hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments, additional direct payments to qualifying Americans, money for schools to reopen and billions for vaccination efforts. Here's Biden talking about his plan last night.

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JOE BIDEN: The crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight, and there's no time to waste. We have to act and we have to act now. This is what economists are telling us. More importantly, it's what the values we hold dear in our hearts as Americans are telling us.

MOSLEY: The announcement of this plan comes just days before he and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris are set to take office.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow, co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast, talked one on one with Harris. And Scott woke up very early in the morning to talk to us. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Good morning. So Joe Biden wants to start off his administration with a big stimulus plan. Tonya mentioned some of what's in there, but $1.9 trillion is a whole lot of money. So what did Kamala Harris tell you? Where else is that money going?

DETROW: A lot of places. These are things that Biden and Harris campaigned on, talked about for months, expanding those direct payments - another round of those - expanding unemployment benefits and emergency paid sick leave. There are also some big Democratic priorities in this package, including a longtime goal - raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Democrats are going to have very narrow majorities. The Senate will be tied. So Harris is going to be spending a lot of time casting tie-breaking votes. But she said this is the new administration's top priority, and she is confident this can pass the House and Senate very quickly, even with everything else going on.

MARTIN: Did you just gesture wildly with your arms? Everything else going on is a whole lot of everything else.

DETROW: I did.

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MARTIN: Does she think that she can, along with the president-elect, focus Congress on this massive aid package while the Senate is in the middle of an impeachment trial?

DETROW: She's taking the same approach that Joe Biden has been taking and saying that she's determined that this trial will not slow down this first big legislative push.

KAMALA HARRIS: We know how to multitask (laughter). There's a reason that word exists in the English language. That's what's going to be required. We have to multitask, which means, as with anyone, we have a lot of priorities and we need to see them through.

DETROW: It's really going to be harder than that, though. And there are a couple reasons why. First of all, this trial is just going to take up so much time in the Senate, and senators are going to have to focus around it. And it's almost certainly going to keep partisan tensions as high as they are at a moment when Biden had really planned on trying to turn the page in trying to reach out to Republicans. So I think the key question is how willing everyone else is to multitask as well.

MARTIN: All right. So inauguration is happening next Wednesday. This will be exactly two weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol carried out by pro-Trump extremists. I imagine you talked with Kamala Harris about this. What'd she have to say?

DETROW: Yeah, she called it horrific, an assault on democracy. And she, of course, is about to become the first woman of color to serve as vice president. So I asked her what went through her mind when she saw racist symbols like the Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol hallways where she has served for the past four years.

HARRIS: I mean, it was the same thing that went through my mind when I saw Charlottesville. I mean, it's the same thing that went through my mind when I, you know, saw a picture of Emmett Till, you know. I - sadly, it is not the first time I have seen a demonstration like what you are describing in the history of our country. And it is - it is a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do.

DETROW: A clear message from Harris that as unprecedented as this attack was, a lot of the sentiments underneath it were not that unprecedented.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Scott Detrow, he co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast. And you can hear more from his interview with Kamala Harris there. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. State officials and law enforcement are getting ready for what could be a calamitous week at state capitols across the country.

MOSLEY: Yes. The FBI is warning that armed right-wing extremists could potentially try something similar to that violent mob attack last week on our U.S. Capitol ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. One of the states where authorities have sounded the alarm is Michigan.

MARTIN: Abigail Censky joins us now from member station WKAR in East Lansing, Mich. Abigail, thanks for being here.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Of course.

MARTIN: So, Abigail, earlier this year, an armed mob threatened state lawmakers in the Michigan Capitol. And, of course, there was that plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Is there a sense now of what's coming in Michigan next week?

CENSKY: Well, planning has been happening off of mainstream social media and on other apps, so it's been harder to track. As far as the Capitol building itself, this week, our Capitol commission banned long guns from the Capitol. But our attorney general, Dana Nessel, has not been shy about saying that doesn't come close to making the building secure. This is what she said on CNN earlier this week.

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DANA NESSEL: We don't have anybody to even check if you do have a license. We have no metal detectors. So if you were to bring an explosive device into the Capitol, if you were to bring multiple weapons, as long as they're underneath a coat or a jacket or in a bag, no one would ever know about it.

CENSKY: So like the AG said there, security is light, especially during session. And lawmakers are scheduled to meet three days next week.

MARTIN: What is your sense of how the state is preparing to keep people safe if something were to happen?

CENSKY: There's a couple of things. So there's a 6-foot fence that's going up around our Capitol building today. There's already been an increased police presence. And that will stick around for the next couple of weeks. We've heard from officials that there's been constant coordination with the National Guard, local and state police and also that federal officials, as well as local officials, are monitoring chatter, but they've not said anything about credible threats of violence.

MARTIN: So you have reported at a lot of the stay-at-home protests that have been happening in Michigan, especially in the spring of last year, people outraged about the COVID restrictions that were keeping them home, businesses closed. Do you get a sense that things have changed significantly in that movement, in that level of outrage?

CENSKY: Yeah. So at spring protests, we saw a heavy presence of Trump supporters, as well as militias. There were some Proud Boys and followers of the boogaloo movement. But I would say the biggest difference, not so much an outrage, is the level of planning. We're not able to see what the outrage is because this used to be planned on Facebook, and now it's happening on more obscure apps like MeWe and Gab. So it's much less visible.

MARTIN: Abigail Censky of member station WKAR, thank you.

CENSKY: Of course.

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MARTIN: All right. We're going to stay in Michigan for our last story today because state prosecutors yesterday filed criminal charges against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight additional public officials.

MOSLEY: The charges are related to the years-long water crisis in the city of Flint, where more than 100,000 residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead. This devastating scandal led to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed 12 people. Snyder faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

MARTIN: Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio has been following the story and joins us. Rick, thanks for being here. The Flint water crisis started in 2014. Can you just briefly remind us what happened? What caused it?

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Sure. Then-Governor Rick Snyder was looking to get a number of city budgets under control - Flint, Detroit. He appointed emergency managers to run financially distressed cities that had struggled to balance their books. And Flint's emergency manager made a bad decision to switch the city's water supply. That was to save money. Well, the switch from one water source to another, that caused the lead in Flint's old water pipes to leach into household drinking water. We're talking crazy high levels of lead, and lead contamination causes all sorts of well-documented developmental and health problems, particularly in young children. The high levels of lead in the water meant the city had to distribute enormous amounts of bottled water to tens of thousands of residents.

MARTIN: Yeah. I talked with the doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was one of the doctors to actually raise alarms about this crisis in the first place. She's now the director of Flint's Pediatric Public Health Initiative. And here's what she said about those responsible for this disaster.

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MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Many people looked the other way. People in power made tragic and terrible choices, then collectively and ineptly tried to cover up their mistakes.

MARTIN: And I want to highlight she also talked about the deep systemic racism that caused the Flint crisis, that it never would have happened if it had been in a white suburb instead of an economically struggling majority-Black city. I mean, Rick, you're there. You followed this for so long. Tell us more about what these specific charges mean against these officials.

PLUTA: Well, certainly what you just said is central to all of this. We mentioned the governor. He's facing two misdemeanor counts, but there are plenty more people and some facing more serious charges - involuntary manslaughter, perjury. The people accused include the governor's chief of staff, his top policy adviser, his three top health officials, two Flint emergency managers, as well as the person who's the city's public works director at the time. Michigan solicitor general Fadwa Hammoud spoke yesterday about the importance of holding officials accountable.

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FADWA HAMMOUD: When an entire city is victimized by the negligence and indifference of those in power, it deserves an uncompromising investigation that holds to account anyone who is criminally culpable. That is what all citizens in this state are entitled to, regardless of their zip code.

MARTIN: What about the residents of Flint, the people there? How are they responding?

PLUTA: Well, a lot of people said they never expected people to be charged, not important people. But that doesn't mean that Flint residents are convinced that any of these individuals will actually face jail time. LaTricea Adams is a community activist in Flint, and this was her reaction to the charges against Snyder and Croft.

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LATRICEA ADAMS: Even with accountability, even if Rick Snyder was behind bars for a significant amount of time, that still doesn't compensate for the generations of irreversible damage.

MARTIN: Each of those charged posted bail. What happens next?

PLUTA: Well, there is no specific trial date, and there is still a settlement agreement that is pending the approval of a federal judge that's on the civil track. And that person will decide how that money should be distributed.

MARTIN: And what about the drinking water? Can people, can kids safely drink the water in Flint?

PLUTA: Well, many of the old water pipes have been replaced, but residents still have a deep-set skepticism about the safety of the drinking water.

MARTIN: Rick Pluta, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

PLUTA: Oh, you bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.