Susan J. Demas: Snyder’s next act hinges on his Lame Duck legacy

December 16, 2018 2:48 pm

Gov. Rick Snyder spoke to soldiers and airman during a ceremony celebrating 25 years of cooperation between the Michigan Air National Guard and Latvian Army, June 2018. | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Gina K Danals via Flickr Public Domain

Rick Snyder is a man with a plan. He always has been.

That’s part of how he rose from being raised in a modest 900-square-foot home in Battle Creek while working summers at the Gun Lake Northside Grocery to becoming the CEO of Gateway and, later, the 48th governor of Michigan.

Rick Snyder (left) and Brian Calley (right) at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Snyder picked up his first edition of Fortune magazine at age 8, while most boys were still collecting baseball cards. He credits his parents for teaching him how to make a decision.

“Many parents don’t … And they loved me even when I messed up,” he told me in 2010.

During my first sit-down interview with the Republican — while he was still polling within the margin of error during his maiden gubernatorial run — Snyder told me about his life’s plan. He’s generally mild-mannered, save for his first-term exhortations about “Relentless Positive Action” (RPA, as the kids definitely don’t say) and working in “dog years.”

But when the former CEO talked about the grand plan he had mapped out at age 16, his eyes lit up. And he began talking faster than usual.

Phase One was conquering the corporate world. Snyder was in a hurry to get there. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan by age 19 and completed both an M.B.A. and J.D. there in quick succession.

Snyder ended up earning millions as an executive with Coopers & Lybrand, Gateway and Avalon Investments, a venture capital firm he came back to Michigan to get off the ground. He also was the inaugural chair of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) from 1999 to 2001.

2010 Michigan Republican State Convention | Creative Commons

That probably whetted his appetite for Phase Two: public service. Corporate titans tend not to think small, so it was hardly a surprise that the political novice eschewed running for county commission or the state Legislature, instead declaring for governor.

Snyder left four more experienced GOP opponents in the dust in 2010, thanks to his clever “One Tough Nerd” branding and almost $6 million of his personal fortune. Blessed by running in a red tide year, he coasted to an almost 20-point general election victory over a particularly weak Democratic opponent, now-former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

And despite angering unions by signing Right to Work in 2012 and running a lackluster re-election campaign, he pulled off a 4-point win in 2014.

Snyder’s second term, of course, has been known nationally and internationally for the Flint water crisis, overshadowing the state’s “economic comeback” that he and his GOP allies remain desperate to talk about.

Progressive critics, like myself, had long warned that the former computer executive’s affinity for prioritizing balance sheets in policy decisions ignored the needs of actual human beings. We were tragically proven correct.

As Snyder faces the ticking clock of term limits, it’s worth noting that he never intended his political career to continue past 2018. He explained to me back in 2010 that getting elected governor was part of a “10-year plan” — two years campaigning and eight years in office. (He was, of course, expecting to win re-election, as he’s not accustomed to failure).

Once in the governor’s chair, Snyder, like so many politicians, flirted with higher office. In late 2015, he formed a new political action committee seen as a vehicle for a presidential run. But the avalanche of stories in the ensuing months about the health catastrophe in Flint ended any chatter. Snyder was still considered cabinet secretary material in 2016, but his refusal to endorse now-President Trump put the kibosh on that dream, as well.

Nevertheless, Phase Three of Snyder’s plan was always academia. He was a teaching assistant at U of M and he told me in 2010 that returning to the classroom would be an ideal post-politics career. During his first year as governor, Snyder was tapped to give his alma mater’s commencement speech, which clearly tickled him (despite some student protests).

Lame Duck protest at the Michigan Capitol, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

But given Snyder’s tarnished tenure over Flint and his status as the eighth least popular governor in the nation, he may find his college employment options far more limited than he once anticipated.

And so his actions in this Lame Duck session will be closely scrutinized. The GOP-controlled Legislature is weighing myriad legislative gifts to corporate lobbyists and power-grab bills before Democrats assume all top statewide office on Jan. 1.

The million-dollar question is if Snyder will sign off on the Republicans’ reactionary agenda. The national media have certainly been mesmerized by this mystery, too.

If history is any guide, the answer is “yes” on almost everything. Snyder has endorsed anti-LGBTQ bills on adoptions, a GOP gerrymandering scheme in Oakland County, a hasty rewrite of the Emergency Manager law just weeks after voters dumped it in 2012 and, of course, Right to Work.

But the governor has occasionally shown independence, vetoing some anti-abortion measures, a concealed weapons expansion and legislation barring state regulations from exceeding federal standards (which is on his desk again).

So far in Lame Duck, Snyder has stuck to his pattern of breaking progressives’ hearts by signing measures shoring up Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline and gutting minimum wage and paid sick leave ballot initiatives.

The biggest test of Snyder’s legacy is if he acquiesces on legislation that seizes power from incoming Democrats, presuming it makes it to his desk. Republicans have bills allowing the Legislature to do an end-run around Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel by intervening in lawsuits. There’s also legislation stripping campaign finance oversight from Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson.

Whitmer has said that Snyder isn’t like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who last week signed bills wresting power from his Democratic successor, Tony Evers. However, if Snyder takes the same path, the Venn diagram between the two governors will basically be a full circle.

Scott Walker was roundly mocked for his Venn diagram fail after signing legislation last week.

It’s true that Snyder told reporters last week during his exit interview that he’s not focused on his legacy. That’s, of course, fairly akin to kids insisting they don’t care what they’re getting from Santa at Christmas.

Rick Snyder has always prided himself on being able to make decisions. In the next few weeks, people in Michigan — and across the country — will eagerly watch if he’s capable of making the right ones.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.