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Gov. Rick Snyder leaves mixed legacy in big Michigan cities

December 31, 2018


By: Emily Lawler

LANSING, MI — Tomorrow, Michiganders lose the state’s highest-ranking nerd.

Gov. Rick Snyder came out of the political hinterland in 2010 to sweep a Republican primary full of big names and later a general election by a large margin. On Tuesday he will vacate that office, handing it over to Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer won in part by campaigning hard in Flint and Detroit, cities that represent widely divergent results of Snyder’s approach to problem-solving that may become emblematic of his time in office.

Snyder broke onto the public’s radar in 2010 with a Super Bowl ad touting the moniker “One Tough Nerd.”

He touted his business experience on his journey to the governor’s office, and is not shy about spending time in details and data.

Throughout his tenure he seemed to sidestep partisan pushes, focusing far ahead on the state’s future while some pursued the here and now. And, never one for politicking, he seems unconcerned about what Michiganders think of him as he leaves office.

Asked about whether he feared the Flint water crisis, in which citizens were poisoned by lead leaching into their water, would cloud his legacy, Snyder said no.

“I don’t think about legacy,” he told reporters asking about it at a term-end roundtable on Dec. 11.

“That’s not why I sought this position or the honor I have holding this position,” Snyder said.

But in the waning days of his governorship, his legacy is already taking shape, and the mark he leaves on two of Michigan’s big cities factor into that.

Saving Detroit had ‘no political upside’

Detroit, once a beacon of high wages and advanced industry, faced issues like a declining population, rampant blight and corrupt officials, most notably ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, when Snyder took office. Serious financial problems in the city, and Snyder’s successful crusade to rectify them against political odds, would turn into a defining part of his tenure.

When he took office back in 2011, Snyder was already showing signs of interest in the state’s biggest city. In a major announcement in his first State of the State address he bucked Republican precedent and announced his support of the Gordie Howe Bridge, then known as the Detroit River International Crossing.

It was an early olive branch to a much-maligned city that would end up needing help from the full force of state government.

On July 18, 2013, the city of Detroit filed for the largest bankruptcy in United States history, supported by the governor and Kevyn Orr, the emergency financial manager Snyder had appointed.

Then-U.S. Chief District Judge Gerald Rosen mediated what came to be known as the “Grand Bargain,” leveraging philanthropic interest to save a big city asset — the Detroit Institute of Arts — and also settle with pensioners and the city’s creditors. Snyder, who used his clout throughout the city’s bankruptcy process, shepherded a $195 million appropriation through the legislature that helped seal the deal.

In a statement after the city’s plan was finalized and accepted by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in 2014, Snyder celebrated the statewide embrace of Detroit the process had pushed to the forefront.

“People will long remember that when Detroit arrived at this troubling hour, its residents and leaders – with supporters statewide – started to pull together as one. Our state has rallied around its largest and iconic city. It is no longer Detroit vs. Michigan, but the embracing of Detroit, Michigan,” he said.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, remembers Snyder’s involvement in every step of the process bankruptcy process without regard for optics or politics.

“There was no political upside for the governor to be engaged in Detroit in the way he was… he really, truly did lead,” Baruah said.

The governor spent a significant part of his first term helping save the city, and a significant part of his second term championing its progress. He sent help from Lansing on things like a lighting authority, a regional transit authority and support for a new arena.

He touted the city on trade missions, encouraged former residents to come back and celebrated business milestones, like new investments in the city and occupancy rates driven by its new workforce.

And in 2018, his administration released the city from the last vestiges of state oversight. In a December roundtable interview with reporters he called Detroit “the most exciting urban area in America.”

Baruha credited Snyder for his work in the city’s bankruptcy.

“If it weren’t for Governor Snyder’s actions, who knows what kind of shape Detroit would be in,” he said.

But woven throughout that timeline of successes for Detroit were the beginnings of a problem that would loom large over Snyder’s legacy: The Flint water crisis.

Flint finds flaws in emergency management

The emergency management system that had helped shape Detroit’s success was also at the root of a public health emergency state government failed to respond to swiftly.

For four decades, Flint had relied on Detroit to provide Flint’s drinking water. In 2013, then-Flint Emergency Financial Manger Ed Kurtz made the decision to switch water sources, a money-saving move. The plan became to use the water from the Flint River for two years, then switch to a new pipeline under construction. The switch to the Flint River was made in 2014.

Immediately, complaints started pouring in from Flint residents who said the water was discolored, it smelled, it was causing rashes and other other health problems. Some were at unofficial, like on social media. Others were filed formally with Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office. Even when scientific evidence started piling on top of those complaints, the Snyder administration initially cast doubt on it through the Department of Environmental Quality.

Even after the administration recognized the crisis as a crisis, Snyder initially struggled to get his arms around it — something critics attributed to his focus on spreadsheets and the bottom line, along with the governing philosophy and culture he had fostered.

It wasn’t until January 2016, more than a year after residents started complaining and months after research revealed that lead was leaching into the water, that Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint.

And it’s the part after the state delved into the crisis that Snyder focuses on — things like getting the city resources and putting a stricter lead and copper rule in place for drinking water.

“The Flint water crisis was a terrible thing that happened. We put a lot of response into it, though, and in fact we’ve done some things to show national leadership… so again, it was a tragedy and people suffered, but again, how can we be better and stronger in the long term as a state, and hopefully help our nation?” Snyder said.

During the Flint water crisis he took a lot of flak for running the state like a business — something he hit back against in the roundtable with reporters at the end of his term.

“I’ve never run it like a business, because the motive is not profit. The motive is to help people,” he said, citing his work on the Detroit bankruptcy as the best example of a time when he’d done that.

Asked about Snyder’s legacy, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said they had worked together on things like public safety, personal property tax and Healthy Michigan. But for him, Flint overshadows that.

“I think unfortunately the way they handled in the beginning, in the middle and in the end of Flint water makes it very difficult for me to have any lasting amount of respect. …. You can’t lie to people over and over again and continue to lie to people as you walk out the door and have much respect from me,” Ananich said.

Economy, civility leave a mark

While the state’s urban centers have helped shape how people view him, so too has the state’s economy more generally. Business and the economy were solidly in the governor’s wheelhouse, and he put in a lot of work on what he calls “Michigan’s comeback” as the state emerged from the national recession.

The state has created 560,000 private-sector jobs during his tenure, he said, and unemployment went from 10.4 percent in 2011, his first year in office, to 4.6 percent in 2017, the last year in which full-year data is available.

And he did it all while not conforming to political norms or expectations. He made an initially unpopular case for expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, and got it through the Republican-led legislature. Today, the Healthy Michigan program they created covers more than 680,000 Michiganders, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The governor’s successes dovetail with something not every politician has: His mantra of “Relentless Positive Action.”

He has repeatedly called for civility, including in a speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference earlier this year.

“My greatest concern for our nation is the lack of civility that we have. How can you be the world’s greatest country if you can’t get along with yourself?” he said.

Even under grueling circumstances, Snyder doesn’t raise his voice, at least publicly. He doesn’t dabble in the mean-spirited, and isn’t concerned with taking credit for big accomplishments or blaming other people for big losses.

“He was always as advertised. He was a self-proclaimed nerd who was always focused on being optimistic and working on the next problem, was always positive towards other people, never engaged in negative talk about other people,” Baruah said.

“It was a delight to work with a public executive with that kind of approach.”

Throughout his tenure, he’s shown a streak of individuality in handling everything from big agreements to political gambles to unprecedented crises. This pattern makes it fitting that, as he leaves office, he would keep Michigander guessing as to what his legacy, and his next move, might be.

And even though he’s dismissive of looking backward at a legacy, he embraces the state’s progress and is hopeful it will continue under Whitmer.

“It’s been an exciting eight years. Michigan’s fundamentally a much better state than it was when we started,” Snyder said.

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