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Michigan governor shakes up political stereotypes

The Detroit News: May 29, 2014

Mackinac Island — There, in the middle of the Grand Hotel’s historic lobby, stood Rick Snyder and his wife, as a Republican backer publicly lashed the would-be governor for taking a rhetorical beating at a candidate forum.

It was a striking scene, four years ago this week. Here was Snyder beginning his long-shot play to launch a sweeping agenda to improve the state’s balance sheet, reform taxes, improve competitiveness and embark on an ambitious bankruptcy-led restructuring of Detroit that is recasting the traditional camps of Republican versus Democrat, city versus suburb.

He didn’t argue with John Rakolta, the chairman of Walbridge Aldinger Co. unhappy that “his” candidate failed to respond more forcefully to then-attorney general Mike Cox’s harsh attack. It was vintage Snyder, a personal political style that can disarm and confound opponents because it eschews the confrontation so familiar to Michigan politics.

“I show results instead of talking about issues,” the governor told The Detroit News Wednesday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference here, sounding like an incumbent launching his re-election campaign. “I’m never complacent or content.”

Critics may gag at the election-year claim, but the facts support Snyder’s contention far more than his Democratic rivals may be willing to acknowledge. From tax policy and budgets to education spending and state support for the Detroit bankruptcy, Snyder’s leadership is defying easy stereotypes by focusing more on solutions than clinging to partisan talking points and special interests.

His lack of political experience, a sharp contrast to Michigan’s last Republican governor, often is proving more an asset than a liability. He does not wield the threat of political payback as readily as John Engler, freeing Snyder from the calculations that can slow legislative action to enact pieces of his agenda.

The result is easily sensed here at the chamber’s annual Grand Hotel schmoozefest. The mood is upbeat; business leaders express cautious optimism, citing rising personal income, improving home values, lower unemployment, higher job creation and a restructuring of Detroit identifying common interests across the state.

Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s leading roundtable of CEOs, Thursday will issue its assessment of the governor’s first term. The report is expected to give Snyder high marks for tax reform, more disciplined budgeting, a new international bridge to Canada, the Detroit bankruptcy and a push for funding to repair the state’s crumbling roads.

Democrats contend otherwise. Wednesday’s “Mackinac Island Tip Sheet,” produced by the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee and distributed here, says Snyder’s economy is “not working,” that Wall Street execs and cronies are cashing in with Team Snyder, that Snyder’s former treasurer, Andy Dillon, was “paid not to work.”

Predictable election rhetoric, that. Other Democrats grudgingly acknowledge the governor’s record — with the glaring exception of the right-to-work law his party rammed through the Legislature in a single day — or despair at a generally effective political style that is “not the playbook” of partisan confrontation.

“The governor showed true leadership by not kicking the can down the road as governor of the state,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Council member who teaches political history at Wayne State University. “He basically said ‘The buck stops here — I’m going to address that.’ I really respect that.”

He got help, of course, from the global economic meltdown and ensuing recession that tipped Detroit into financial crisis, created an opportunity for change and gave his Republican party control of both houses of the Legislature. He also got an assist from dysfunctional political leadership in Detroit, frozen into inaction by the massive challenges before it.

And he got lucky. Where Jennifer Granholm served as Detroit’s automakers spiraled toward insolvency, gridlock gripped the Legislature and political corruption riddled City Hall, Snyder took office as the automakers were climbing back from bankruptcy, his party controlled the Legislature and Kwame Kilpatrick and his cronies were headed to jail.

More, a new generation of business and civic leadership focused on the future, not the past, moved to mirror mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert’s bet on downtown Detroit. Snyder’s political bias for solution, not confrontation, is proving a better match for the times in which he is governing.

“There’s a window here to do something about changing the political climate in the city and in the region that should not be lost,” said Cockrel, also founder of Crossroads Consulting. “The governor is not acting like a typical Republican toward the city of Detroit.”

Nor is his party, whose leaders in Lansing are poised to pass an 11-bill, $195 million rescue package for the city that would complete the “grand bargain” sought to settle the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Not much political upside for the GOP or Snyder in that, and that’s the point.
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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.


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