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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In Case You Missed It: Download the 2017 State of the Region

Recently, the Detroit Regional Chamber released its third annual State of Region report, underwritten by Citizens Bank. Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah presented the report findings to nearly 300 business and community leaders at The Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit.

The report, which offers a data-driven analysis of the progress made in the 11-counties that comprise the Detroit region, garnered several media articles throughout the day. The local news outlets included: Crain’s Detroit Business, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and MLive.

During the luncheon, Baruah outlined the accomplishments of key indicators of the region including per capita income, which the Detroit region ranked third nationally in one-year per capita income growth. Median home values also lead peer regions in both five-year and one-year growth rates and the region led its peers in median home value growth between 2014 and 2015 at 10.7 percent.

The report also showed the region added more than 200,000 jobs since 2010, with architecture and engineering as the fastest-growing occupations. The Detroit region is now sixth among its peers in the Kauffman Innovation Index, charting startup activity – up five spots. The region is also No. 1 in patent growth, with patents granted to regional innovators growing by 8 percent.

“As the data in this report suggest, the needle is indeed moving in the right direction,” Baruah said.

The afternoon presentation also addressed key areas in need of improvement. The data showed that while the region matched the national average when it came to educational attainment, it still lags behind most all of the competing regions. Transit was another area for improvement. Regional transit entities handled approximately 42 million public transit rides last year, far short of the goal of 55 million rides.

“While some progress is being made, we’re not making the dramatic progress that we need to make in order to ensure our position in the 21st century,” Baruah told the crowd. “Businesses need to remain focused on affecting public policies that boost high school graduation rates and strengthen a pipeline of students into higher education.”

Following the presentation, Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for General Motors Co., gave an overview of national economic trends and the impact they have on the region. Mohatarem then joined a panel to provide reaction to the data and discuss the current state of the economy. Panelists included Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation; John Roberts, budget director of the State of Michigan; and Marina Whitman, professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. Education and transportation were areas of most concern for all panelists.

In addition to Citizens Bank, other sponsors of the event included: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Comcast Business and Office Depot.

To view or download a copy of the report, click here.

Special Edition: 2013 Detroit Policy Conference Engages Business Community in Timely City Discussion

For full news coverage of the 2013 Detroit Policy Conference, click here. You can also view videos and photos from the event here.

2013 Detroit Policy Conference Inspires Engagement, Sparks Timely Discussion

Nearly 600 of Detroit’s government, business and community leaders gathered today to take part in a day dedicated to Detroit’s success during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2013 Detroit Policy Conference. The Conference discussion continued online, with tweets streaming live throughout the day on MLIVE Buzz Boards located throughout the MotorCity Casino Hotel.

Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah also explained to Conference attendees Charter One’s unique Growing Communities program, which provides microgrants to vendors and farmers at Eastern Market who then use the funds to grow their businesses. The Growing Communities Market Refreshment Breaks between Conference sessions highlighted this program and followed the Conference theme of responsible corporate citizenship for shared growth. To watch the video of Baruah’s speech, click here.

Rock Ventures’ Matt Cullen Talks Opportunity in DetroitBeginning the morning keynote sessions, Rock Ventures President and CEO Matt Cullen took the stage to highlight the array of projects taking place throughout the city through the Rock Ventures portfolio and others with the goal of providing citizens a dynamic place to live, work and play. He outlined in detail the progress made in bringing business back into the city through talent attraction, greater quality of life opportunities and increased redevelopment efforts. He also talked about the Rock Ventures/Quicken Loans community campaign, “Opportunity Detroit.” The campaign focuses on promoting business opportunities in Detroit and was showcased on a commercial featuring Kid Rock, which aired nationally during World Series Game 4 and during the Thanksgiving Day Lions game. To view the video of Cullen’s keynote speech, click here.

Dr. Richard Florida Focuses on Importance of Creativity to Economic Success

Best-selling author and renowned “urbanist” Dr. Richard Florida took the Detroit Policy Conference stage this morning to quantify Detroit’s continued comeback. Florida, who recently completed a five-part video series titled “Detroit Rising,” stressed the importance of tackling urban development with an entrepreneurial spirit. During one of the high points of his remarks, Florida said that if you had asked him if Detroit could recover the way it has 10 years ago, he would’ve said no. He noted that he would’ve given the city credit for having plenty to build on, but that this amount of progress is impressive.

He said that this is an economic time driven not by knowledge or technology or corporations, but that of a creative class. He said the key to nurturing and growing this type of developing economy, especially in a city like Detroit, is a defined transit strategy like the M-1 Rail and the development and incubation of the service industry. This session was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. To watch the full speech, click here.

Morning Panelists Re-Imagine Detroit’s Greatest Institutional Assets

Following the morning keynote sessions, the Conference split into concurrent breakout sessions with topics ranging from the food and creative industries in Detroit to the city’s greatest assets. One of these sessions, “Re-Imagining Detroit’s Assets: Leadership, Policy and a Strong Urban Core,” featured panelists including Larry Alexander, chairman, Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority; Graham Beal, president, Detroit Institute of Arts; Thomas Naughton, CEO, Wayne County Airport Authority; and Faye Nelson, president and CEO, Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs for DTE Energy Paul Hillegonds moderated the session.

Panelists discussed the policies being put forth that will help ensure the vibrancy and reinvention of Detroit’s largest institutions continue to flourish. The panel collectively presented the keys to revitalizing Detroit’s most valued institutions as being dependent on collaborative community efforts and forward-thinking strategies. The speakers agreed that public-private partnerships are crucial elements in driving progress. This session was sponsored by Chase.

IT Panel Analyzes Emerging Technology Sector in Detroit Region

The final group of breakout sessions highlighted topics including small business, urban development and the IT industry. The “Outpacing Silicon Valley: How Detroit is Revolutionizing the IT Industry” session included the following panelists: Jim Anderson, founder, president and CEO, Urban Science; Henry Balanon, co-founder, Detroit Labs; Jen Todd Gray, vice president of marketing and creative services, ePrize; and Joey Grover, software engineer and mobile technology lead, Livio; Zafar Razzacki, account executive, Google Inc. Matt Roush, technology editor for WWJ Newsradio 950, moderated the session.

Session panelists focused their discussion on the Detroit region’s growing IT sector, highlighting the opportunities helping technology businesses leverage talent in and to the region. They each shared successful company practices and benefits that have helped to bring on young talent from surrounding collegiate networks as well as the weight of Detroit’s growing reputation as a vibrant, innovative city. This session was sponsored by Comcast Business Class.

Business Process Maps Unveiled, Mayor Bing Discusses State of City

Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah took the stage after lunch today in order to present the Walsh College and Business Services Network process maps. These maps are a direct result of the 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List. The maps are simple graphic representations of commonly used city processes that to help guide businesses navigate city requirements. This set of maps focuses on permit processes including obtaining a business license, special events, signage, outdoor patio space, new construction and renovation construction.

Following Baruah’s presentation of the process maps, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing took the stage to discuss the state of business in Detroit. Mayor Bing discussed his hopes for the city now and moving into the future. He also highlighted his successful relationship with the federal government and his plans to continue to advocate for Detroit at the White House. To watch the video of Mayor Bing’s speech, click here. This session was sponsored by KPMG.

Top Media Minds Examine 2013 Election Landscape, State of the City

At a critical time in Detroit’s history and redevelopment, some of the area’s top media voices gathered to discuss the 2013 election landscape and the transition to a council by district system in Detroit. Panelists included Nolan Finley, editorial page editor for The Detroit News; Mildred Gaddis, host of WCHB’s “Inside Detroit;” Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press; and moderator Vince Keenan, founder and president of

The panelists engaged in a lively discussion over the impending possibility of an emergency manager appointment and that person’s perceived role and possible impact on the city’s redevelopment. They then moved into dissecting the changing role of council members under the new council by districts system. The group also discussed the upcoming mayoral race and the impact an emergency manger will have on the candidates.