Gov. Rick Snyder could be the country’s most unusual Republican. Can he save Detroit?


Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder is up for reelection against former Democratic congressman Mark Schauer. Local pundits say the biggest unknown factor ahead of this November's vote is Detroit's bankruptcy case, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Not long after signing a bill to increase Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour over four years, Gov. Rick Snyder was at it again, sounding like anything but a conservative Republican.

Standing before reporters in his signature open-collar shirt, Snyder praised the legislature last week for passing a $195 million state aid package for Detroit, the linchpin of a “grand bargain” to lift the Motor City out of bankruptcy without resorting to crippling pension cuts or the sale of the world-class collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“People around the world know of our largest city’s proud past as well as the struggles of its difficult but necessary bankruptcy,” Snyder said, adding: “This settlement plan will allow Detroit to build a solid fiscal foundation for its continuing comeback.”

Less than a year ago, Snyder pushed Detroit into bankruptcy. Now he’s an unlikely driving force rallying the rest of the state to help this overwhelmingly Democratic city back on its feet.

It’s not unusual considering that Snyder, 55, has become one of the most hard-to-pin-down Republicans in the country.

Like some other GOP governors, Snyder has signed controversial right-to-work legislation preventing unions from requiring workers to pay dues — a crushing defeat for organized labor in a state that was once a hub of union power. Working with a GOP-controlled legislature, he also has cut unemployment benefits and slashed business taxes while imposing a new tax on pensioners.

But unlike many Republican governors, he pushed to expand Medicaid and is encouraging immigration of high-skill workers. He vetoed legislation requiring voters to have government-issued identification. And while Snyder forced Detroit into bankruptcy, he has become perhaps the most influential advocate for an aid plan to put the city back on sound financial footing.

“I think he’s grabbing the attention of a lot of folks,” said Robert I. Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “Going forward, he will be part of the national conversation. There is no way around it.”

Snyder’s work on a broad range of issues has fueled speculation that he could be a presidential candidate in 2016 or later.

He insists that he is focused only on his reelection, although he adds: “I think we’ve built a great model in Michigan that I think the country can learn from in terms of relentless positive action, and solving problems, and a great comeback.”

Snyder received just 5 percent of his votes from Detroit in 2010, yet he has said helping the city is crucial. A bankruptcy settlement would spare the state litigation and social service costs, he said.

More important, he added, it will help dissipate a gloomy cloud that has hung over the Michigan economy for well over a decade. “How much value does that have?” he asked a roomful of business and political leaders at a recent policy retreat on Mackinac Island.

Rebuilding Detroit will be no easy feat.

A task force report released late last month said that nearly a quarter of the city’s parcels are vacant or contain buildings in serious disrepair. It would cost $850 million to clear the blight marring many residential neighborhoods and shopping strips in this 140-square-mile city. If the city’s many abandoned industrial sites are added in, the price tag rises to a staggering $2 billion.

But he has said that a vibrant Michigan demands a vibrant Detroit.

Snyder, an accountant who made a fortune as a Gateway Computers executive and venture capitalist, was a political unknown when he ran for governor four years ago. Calling himself “one tough nerd,” he rode a Republican wave and nearly $6 million of his own money to the governorship.

Now as Snyder campaigns for reelection in November, early polls show him with a comfortable lead over former congressman and state lawmaker Mark Shauer (D), who remains little known across Michigan.

Michigan’s government Web site features a dashboard measuring his administration’s performance on issues from public safety and parks to energy and the environment.

That focus on the bottom line has helped endear him to business leaders who think he is helping Michigan shake the economic doldrums.

“A lot of issues that we work on do not fit into a partisan box, so you would have a hard time finding a candidate who fits all of our priorities,” said Brad Williams, vice president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has endorsed Snyder’s reelection bid. “But Governor Snyder comes pretty close.”

Since Snyder took office in January 2011, Michigan employers have created more than 200,000 new jobs and the state’s unemployment rate has fallen from 11 percent to 7.4 percent. Over the past two years, the state has seen its population tick up slightly, after seven consecutive years of decline.

Some Democrats say the economic gains Snyder takes credit for are largely the result of the rebound in the auto industry that followed the federal bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors. In addition, they point out that the jobs recovery started before Snyder took office and has been losing momentum.

Political opponents also insist that Snyder’s moderate image is mostly a mirage created by his soft-spoken style and his embrace of a few issues that seem to offer a Republican no obvious political payoff, such as the comeback of Detroit.

“Just because he is not a fire-breathing dragon, he has been able to cultivate the perception that he is a moderate,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson. “But that image does not align with the policies this governor has supported.”

Still, the governor has earned grudging praise from some Democrats for his work to restore Detroit’s finances.

Weakened by more than six decades of population loss, Detroit was collapsing under $18 billion in debt when an emergency manager appointed by the governor filed for bankruptcy in July 2013. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history. Detroit was left broke with large swaths of the city in ruins.

Since forcing Detroit into bankruptcy against wishes of city leaders and others who equated the emergency manager with a colonial viceroy, Snyder has become a vocal backer of a state aid plan that he says is necessary for the city to continue on the road from devastation to recovery.

The plan, which would leverage hundreds of millions dollars in foundation and other money to help the city, would cost city retirees no more than 4.5 percent of their pensions — much less than was originally contemplated.

It would result in much larger losses for many bond holders and bond insurance companies — many of whom are angry that the plan pushed by the governor seems to favor Main Street over Wall Street.

The settlement, which would free money for city investment in blight removal and other improvements, still must be approved by city creditors and the federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy, which could happen this summer.

As he made the rounds of meetings and interviews on Mackinac Island, Snyder was all about the business of building support for his plans — to settle the Detroit bankruptcy, to improve job training programs and to improve the state’s crumbling roads, a source of particular ire to many voters.

At one point, he asked whether people in the audience or their family members or friends had lost a car wheel or tire to a pothole. At least a quarter of the people in the room raised their hands.

The governor used that as an opportunity to talk about his infrastructure plan, which he would like to fund with some combination of revenue from a wholesale gasoline tax and increased registration fees for big trucks.

“For a Republican to even mention the word ‘revenues’ is a real breakthrough,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Marilyn Clark, a Democrat who runs a business incubator in Houghton, a small city on the state’s Upper Peninsula, says she voted for Snyder in 2010 because she was convinced he was “a nerd” interested less in politics that in solving problems. She plans to vote for him again this fall.

“He doesn’t always align with Democrats or Republicans, but he does what he thinks is right for Michigan,” she said. “He is an equal opportunity pisser-offer.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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