Why you should care

Snyder’s experiment could vault Michigan back into the national conversation — and burnish his own credentials as a 2016 dark horse.

Rick Snyder is not your typical politician. For one thing, the 56-year-old Battle Creek, Michigan, native is relentlessly punctual, something one of his aides alerted me to when arranging our call. While most elected officials always seem to be running 20 to 30 minutes behind schedule, the first-term Michigan governor was scheduled to call me at 10:15 a.m., and, sure enough, at 10:16 my phone buzzed with a call from the Lansing area. Just a few minutes on the phone with Snyder confirmed another atypical trait for such a high-profile politician — something his colleagues and video footage had already tipped me off to: The man has no charisma. As in none.

“He is the antithesis of slick,” laughs longtime backer Sandy Baruah, the head of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a local pro-business organization.

His offbeat, out-of-nowhere 2010 run to the statehouse upset several far more established politicians along the way.

Sometimes, it seems, voters just want a technocrat at the helm — which was Snyder’s promise coming from a career in finance and business. It’s something we’ve seen in Italy and other European countries grappling with severe economic crises. Could it also be something Americans want and need in federal government now? Or are partisan politics inescapable? Snyder’s experience in Michigan could offer a clue.

Nasally, brainy and earnest, this former tax accountant and Gateway Computers executive very much fits the “one tough nerd” moniker he embraced in his offbeat, out-of-nowhere Republican run to the statehouse in 2010, upsetting far more established politicians along the way. His father’s stint as city commissioner in Battle Creek was his closest brush with political office, but Snyder and his election team played that lack of experience to his advantage, tapping into Michiganders’ disgust with politics-as-usual and their hunger for fresh economic ideas after decades of malaise. In the end, he won the general election by a surprisingly wide margin in this politically divided “purple” state, and in November, Snyder narrowly won reelection, despite controversial stands on Detroit’s bankruptcy, labor rights and government spending.

Since moving into the statehouse in 2011, the neophyte has seen the challenges come thick and fast. There was Detroit’s financial collapse, coupled with a declining population as residents left the state to seek jobs elsewhere, and a Republican legislature pushing divisive conservative policies. Snyder’s responses have at times incensed partisans on each side of the political divide.

But like him or not, the state’s unemployment rate is ticking down while its business ratings and private investment have risen since 2010. And one of Snyder’s boldest moves — shepherding Detroit through bankruptcy — gave him a huge victory to tout in his second term. Should those policies make Michigan the “comeback state,” as Snyder is already touting it, national Republicans may want to factor this unconventional governor into their 2016 calculations.

Snyder has started to dip his toe into the national conversation, but is nowhere near the GOP’s shortlist for the presidential race. On its face, that’s perplexing, considering the attention generated by other GOP governors of big, vote-rich battleground states — Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Scott of Florida or John Kasich of Ohio. One explanation, from Kevin Madden, a D.C.-based political consultant and senior adviser to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney: “In politics, buzz is often achieved by promotion, and admiration is achieved by accomplishment.” Snyder, he says, is admired among Washington Republicans for making tough political decisions and facing challenges head on, but his lack of grandstanding means he’s doesn’t generate much hype.

Chris Christie speaking into a microphone

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

“I don’t really think about credit, I don’t blame anyone for anything,” Snyder insists, trying instead to stay “very, very focused on what I consider the key issues.”

That hints at another explanation for Snyder’s low profile. According to longtime Michigan political commentator Bill Ballenger, Snyder’s refusal to throw conservatives the sort of “red meat” rhetoric they crave limits his national appeal, particularly in a party primary, which is ultimately a race to the right. “His demeanor is so unusual,” says Ballenger. “He’s a real gentleman, he’s not a bomb thrower.”

Despite his non-confrontational approach, Snyder has found himself in the middle of some of Michigan’s most divisive political debates of recent years. “I’ve had both extremes getting mad at me for something,” he concedes. The governor wasn’t advocating for it, but when the Republican-controlled legislature sent him a “right-to-work” bill barring union dues from being a condition of employment (somewhat akin to the labor reform Gov. Scott Walker enacted in Wisconsin), Snyder quickly signed it. That deeply angered the labor community in Michigan, a state with a long history of union organizing. His change to the state’s pension tax policy — ending a tax exclusion for public employee pensions — has also been controversial.

On other issues, however, Snyder has bucked conservatives. He embraced a provision of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), for example, expanding the state’s Medicaid system in exchange for more federal healthcare funding. Now his proposal to raise the state’s sales and fuel taxes to fund road repairs and primary education, which will be on the ballot in May, is pitting him against conservative anti-tax groups.

lined up protestors walking with signs towards the camera during a cloudy day

Protesters march outside the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit on Dec. 3, 2013.

Source Jeff Kowalkski/Bloomberg/Getty

Unfortunately for Snyder, his work on Detroit hasn’t earned him the admiration of Democrats, either. On the left, there was opposition to the state taking control of the city’s finances, in the first place. “His focus on Detroit is really, from a political standpoint, a thankless job,” says Baruah. It hasn’t bought him “any political goodwill in the city of Detroit,” he says, while in other parts of Michigan, the thinking is “Detroit is Detroit’s problem.” It only affirms Snyder’s reputation as a man operating without much political calculation — something that worried supporters during his reelection bid.

His focus on Detroit is really, from a political standpoint, a thankless job.

Sandy Baruah, head of the Detroit Regional Chamber

Still, Snyder managed to hang on for another term. The governor told reporters the morning after his reelection that his aim in his second term is to “keep going, but go faster, create more and better jobs and a better life for the people in this state.” He plans to focus on things like promoting career technical education to boost employment and Michigan’s manufacturing sector, and rehabilitating Detroit’s neighborhoods so they can share in the renaissance happening downtown. Snyder declines to discuss any political aspirations beyond that, but he has not ruled out a 2016 run if national Republicans came calling. Given his performance this past year, the GOP might want to consider whether his brand of anti-politics might be good politics after all.

This OZY encore was originally published March 10, 2014, and has been updated to reflect recent developments.

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