Republican Rick Snyder called himself #onetoughnerd when he swept into the Michigan governor’s office in 2010, winning election easily after pledging to run the state more like the businesses that generated his substantial wealth.
Although he was a first-time elected official, by 2012 he was considered a possible running mate for the Republican presidential nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. A few years later, he was actively exploring his own bid for president.
Yet now, as he prepares for congressional hearings on the water-contamination debacle in Flint, Mich., a new Twitter hashtag to describe Snyder might be#onedonedude.
No fewer than three efforts to recall him are formally underway, and a special prosecutor is investigating whether the governor or others in his administration should face criminal charges. Some people want him jailed. In Ann Arbor, where he bought a $2 million loft when times were better, his home is picketed, and chalk drawings on the sidewalk taunt him.
“This is the one thing that people know about him. . . . He’s the face of Flint, fair or not,” said Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and an expert in political communication. “He has no political future.”
As the national spotlight falls on Snyder during his testimony Thursday, his predicament is more than just another political fall from grace. Nine people are dead from Legionnaires’ disease that may be linked to Flint’s tainted water and thousands of children may have been poisoned for life by lead. Many in the city of about 100,000 are still drinking bottled water. No one knows how long it will be before they can trust what comes out of their taps.
All of it is being laid at the feet of a man who promised to manage the state more competently than traditional politicians.
“We were an experiment in their philosophy of government,” said Jim Ananich (D), the state Senate minority leader, who lives in Flint and is a harsh critic of Snyder. “But unfortunately, it failed.”
Some who know Snyder well maintain a surprising optimism about him and the future, confident that he will not rest until he makes things right. Fred Davis, the GOP media strategist who said he created the nerd campaign theme, contends that the 57-year-old Snyder sees governing as a series of problems to be dissected and surmounted.
“He’s what you want to hire in an employee, but he’s not the politician you want slapping your back, shaking your hands and kissing your baby,” said Davis, who has no formal ties to Snyder. “He’s just focused on fixing that water problem. And he will fix it. And Flint, Michigan, come hell or high water, will end up with the best water system in the world. That’s Rick.”
Snyder declined to be interviewed, but Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s chief of staff, said that when the governor appears before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, he will echo his State of the State address in January by apologizing to the people of Flint and accepting responsibility for the catastrophe. He also will cite the warning signs that various levels of government overlooked, talk about the current conditions in Flint and discuss how other cities with lead pipes can avoid similar crises. The latter will include possible changes to the Environmental Protection Agency rule that governs water testing.
No matter how sincere he seems, Snyder is likely to face harsh questioning. Congressional officials say Snyder’s office has made little effort to cooperate with their investigation, despite public vows to be transparent about his administration’s response to the disaster.
As of Friday, he had not provided investigators with emails or documents beyond the material he previously released on his website. Lawmakers from both parties have been prodding his office for weeks to turn over the additional records detailing the decisions that caused lead levels to spike in hundreds of Flint homes.
Congressional staffers also have had difficulty securing testimony from former Snyder aides and appointees behind those decisions — and they have struggled to even locate some of them, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, has repeatedly criticized Snyder’s response, accusing the governor of obstructing the probe and seeking to avoid any public testimony.
“Contrary to Gov. Snyder’s recent claim that he requested this ‘opportunity to testify,’ the reality is that he is finally bowing to mounting public pressure to answer questions before Congress about the central and critical role his administration played in this man-made disaster,” Cummings said in a statement.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) complained of similar difficulties with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who is to testify Thursday alongside Snyder. Vitter and two other senators have demanded information about the EPA’s role in the Flint crisis but have not received any response, a spokesman for Vitter said.
Two days before Snyder and McCarthy appear, former EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman and former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley are scheduled to testify before the committee. The EPA regional office has been faulted for not warning the public and has been accused of muzzling a staff scientist who was alarmed about the tainted water.
Flint’s tap water was contaminated by lead when the city temporarily switched to the Flint River for its supply in April 2014. The state failed to ensure that anti-corrosive chemicals were added to the water, which leached lead from the city’s aging underground pipes. Nearly 9,000 children younger than 6, the most vulnerable population, were exposed. Lead can cause permanent learning disabilities, behavior problems and, at higher levels, a number of physical diseases.
Flint switched back to water from Lake Huron in October, but residents still cannot safely drink unfiltered tap water. Children, pregnant women and people with certain health problems have been told to consume only bottled water, and many others are following that advice.
Aside from the responsibility that comes with leading the state bureaucracy that allowed the water contamination to occur, Snyder’s culpability stems from his appointment of “emergency managers” for Flint and several other troubled cities. With authority that superseded the power of elected city officials, the managers made controversial decisions in the name of cutting costs. Earley, who approved the switch to the river water, resigned his position in early 2015.
Before the Flint crisis, Snyder’s career was marked mostly by achievement. He earned undergraduate, business and law degrees from the University of Michigan by age 23. He presided over huge growth at the Gateway computer company before becoming a successful venture capitalist. In 2010, as the tea party movement flourished and political rhetoric became increasingly partisan, Snyder ran as a centrist outsider, talking about issues such as “smart growth.” He was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win an endorsement from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
His allies complain that Flint is obscuring his role in Michigan’s economic turnaround. The state has added 440,000 jobs during Snyder’s tenure, said Agen, Snyder’s chief of staff, and its unemployment rate has dropped from 11.2 percent when he took over as governor to 4.9 percent today.
“I can’t think of anybody better suited to bring Flint back to where they need to be,” said Ronna Romney McDaniel, the state Republican Party chair.
Unless he is recalled — and Michigan makes it extremely difficult to qualify a recall for the ballot — Snyder will have nearly three years to reverse the perception of his performance. The question is whether anything, even an upgraded water system for Flint, can soften the memory of what has happened in the city.
“Flint is such a distinctive story, in that you don’t have to explain to people what lead in your water is. People feel it viscerally,” said Lupia, the University of Michigan political scientist. “I think it doesn’t destroy [Snyder’s] narrative as much as it just takes it off the table.”