Carving an identity amid political tradition

Greg Nash

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) knew he wanted to be a politician from his earliest days.

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“Even going back to my elementary school days, I was just fascinated with politics,” he told The Hill.

As a high schooler, Kildee won appointments from Michigan Gov. William Milliken (R) as a student representative to state commissions on drug abuse and juvenile justice. Kildee’s passion was further abetted by an uncle who was a state and federal politician.

“Other kids would go to the playground. I was at the campaign headquarters,” Kildee said. “I just found it that interesting.”

Kildee’s uncle, Dale Kildee, represented the area around Flint and Saginaw for 36 years before retiring in 2012. According to staffers, the first few months of the new representative’s tenure had more than one instance of visitors to the office being surprised when a new, much younger Rep. Kildee came out to greet them.

Kildee says he understands concerns about such a direct dynastic succession, but is also adamant that he has more than enough experience to be judged independently.

“I love and respect my uncle, [and] he and I share a family history,” Kildee said. “But I’m a different person of a different generation. And I’m a different kind of congressman than he was. We’re just of the same family.”

The claim has a ring of truth, not the least because when the elder Kildee was elected to Congress in 1976, Dan was just a few months from entering electoral politics himself. In the spring of 1977, at the tender age of 18, he contended for a spot on the Flint Board of Education.

“I was one of the first people I voted for,” Kildee said. Despite his youth, years spent under his uncle’s tutelage paid off, and by his recollection, he finished first of a field of nine. Kildee spent seven years on the board, with one of his major efforts being an unsuccessful push to abolish corporal punishment. (The practice was eventually banned by the Michigan legislature after he left office).

At 25, Kildee won his second office, as a county commissioner for Genesee County, which includes Flint. He held the office for 12 years, serving as board chairman for five of those years. In 1997, he moved to the job of county treasurer, where he would spend another 12 years.

Kildee’s quarter-century as a leading figure in Genesee County would see him become an expert in a grim subject: Managing the post-industrial decline of America’s former manufacturing hubs.

Kildee’s hometown of Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, employed over 80,000 people in the auto industry in the ’70s, but steady plant closures have dropped that number to just over 5,000 today. The city has lost over half its residents and has endured repeated fiscal emergencies.

Flint’s decline left the city with a large number of blighted and dilapidated buildings, which typically did not pay property taxes and strained city services. As treasurer, Kildee struggled to improve the situation while grappling with a foreclosure process so slow its proceedings could at times be measured in presidential administrations.

To speed things up, Kildee became a pioneer in the practice of land banking, founding Genesee County’s own land bank in 2002. The land bank had enhanced powers to foreclose on abandoned properties, manage them, and then sell, rent, or demolish them as needed.

The process helped to clear out the vacating city blocks Kildee saw as hotbeds for crime, and also aided the county by moderately relieving the intense stress on its social services and allowing it to aggressively repurpose its land.

“Most systems think of abandoned property as an asset to be sold for nickels on the dollar,” Kildee said. “The land bank concept is one that anticipates that abandoned properties have value, positive and negative impacts that need to be anticipated.”

Kildee’s land bank has over its history acquired some 10,000 properties within Flint, and today there are more than 100 land banks around the country using a similar model.

The approach has aroused controversy, and critics such as conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh have attacked Kildee for what they see as a posture of defeatism for declining cities.

Kildee naturally disagrees, arguing that he is helping to save cities from the poor decisions of decades past and preparing them for future decades.

“Flint, Saginaw are still dealing with the effects of decisions that were made at the federal level 25 years ago,” Kildee said. “The way we invest in housing, infrastructure, the way we support cities does not anticipate a long life for these places, and I think that’s been a mistake.”

After a quarter-century in county governance, Kildee stepped down in 2009 to co-found and serve as president of the Center for Community Progress, which seeks to apply Kildee’s efforts battling urban blight on a national scale.

Two years later, when his uncle announced his intent to step down at long last, Kildee swiftly moved to replace him. His victory was a simple enough affair, as he faced no challengers in the Democratic primary and was able to ride the 5th district’s heavily Democratic voter base to a 34-point rout of Republican Jim Slezak.

Despite the national focus of his new office, Kildee’s legislative priorities remain strongly rooted in his work as a county-level executive. Last year, he successfully lobbied the Treasury Department to approve $100 million in funding to help the Michigan State Housing Development Authority demolish vacant homes in Detroit, Flint, and other major cities in Michigan.

He has also been closely involved with the effort to free Amir Mirza Hekmati, a U.S. citizen and Flint resident who has been imprisoned as an alleged spy in Iran. Kildee has convinced more than 100 lawmakers of both parties to photograph themselves with “Free Amir” signs in order to raise awareness for the cause.

Though frustrated by Congress’s glacial pace and his place as a rookie in the minority party, Kildee’s youthful enthusiasm for politics has not faded.

“As frustrating as this place is, I haven’t been disappointed. I love this job.”