By Jack Lessenberry, Special to The Windsor Star
He doesn’t like to wear a tie, became famous by happily calling himself a “tough nerd,” and during a rare half-hour interview a few days ago said “I just do my thing. I just come to work and do my job the best I can.”
His name is Rick Snyder, and last November, he was elected governor of Michigan by a landslide, though it was his first run for office, and most voters had never heard his name a year before.
Since then, he has managed to push an astonishing amount of dramatic, game-changing bills through the legislature, though his only previous political experience was as a local precinct delegate in his native Battle Creek, where he grew up in a tiny house before becoming a student at the University of Michigan – before being graduated from high school, and without even bothering to apply.
Today, the former under-theradar computer executive and venture capitalist is a bitterly controversial figure.
The personally genial, mildmannered Snyder, hair prematurely white at 53, has sparked angry denunciations over funding cuts, a pension tax and a new law giving tough new powers to emergency managers appointed to run distressed cities and school boards.
Citizens angry over these things mounted a recall campaign (which fizzled). Jim Hightower, the famous Texas populist and commentator recently called the governor “a perverse hybrid of a Soviet czar and a tinhorn banana republic potentate.”
But who is he really? During a long interview in his office, the governor came across as a cheerful, let’s-getit-done executive who has no interest in ideology – except for a near-religious faith in the private sector. Rick Snyder, who began reading Forbes at the age of eight, has stuck to a life plan he mapped out while still a teenager.
Unlike some of the other governors his opponents have compared him to – Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio – Snyder doesn’t appear to want to crush anybody.
Instead, he genuinely believes that if you make the state appealing for business, the jobs will come – and he thinks the way to do that is by drastically lowering corporate and business taxes.
He says he regrets the heavy cuts to education and social programs, but that they were unavoidable. He knows that some economists, notably Michigan State University’s Charles Ballard, say a lot of that pain could have been lessened by a modest increase in the state income tax on those who are still working.
To that, the governor says simply, “This is not the environment to be increasing the overall tax rate on people. It is a difficult time, and the better answer, in my view, is to grow the economy and have more revenue coming in under a low tax system.”
But though he is a strong believer in what used to be called the “Laffer curve” theory of economics, Snyder doesn’t appear to be driven by any secret agenda. He says he has no interest in so-called “right-towork” legislation that would outlaw union shops.
Nor does he want to outlaw public employees’ ability to bargain collectively. These days, if asked about ideology, virtually every Republican politician touts their conservative credentials.
Snyder says “I don’t do labels like that. I don’t see value in it.” Most Republicans are quick to cite Ronald Reagan as a hero.
Michigan’s governor says he doesn’t have political heroes. “There are people I clearly respect and view as positive role models. Gov. (William) Milliken – what he did for the environment in Michigan. Actually, president (Gerald) Ford I always respected a lot for integrity, coming in during a time of crisis.”
What he does believe is best expressed in the mantra he invokes constantly: “Relentless positive action.”
“I’m not sure whether I am an optimistic pragmatist or a pragmatic optimist,” he says, laughing easily. “What I am is a believer in solving problems. That’s why I’m so high on relentless positive action.” Asked to define that, he says “the attributes that go with it is that we don’t blame anyone for anything and we don’t take credit for anything.
“It’s all about solving problems in a relentless fashion. You just line them up; prioritize them, solve one, and then you just take the next.” And when it comes to problems, “we have a very opportunity-rich environment,” he added. On that point, few would disagree.
The governor doesn’t claim to have done everything perfectly. He admits to being surprised how difficult it has been to get his fellow Republicans in the legislature to approve a new bridge over the Detroit River, a bridge that would cost the state nothing.
“That shows the power of what one special interest can do with a lot of money,” he said, meaning Matty Moroun, the monopoly owner of the Ambassador Bridge. “But we are going to get that done.”
Knowledgeable sources say if the legislature continues to balk, the governor may well use a special authority to build the bridge.
Snyder also faulted himself for failing to communicate the reasons beyond some of his reforms, especially the tough new emergency manager bill. “I don’t want to be appointing emergency managers. I view that as a failure,” he said.
“The goal was to give (them) the power so they can get their work done and get out of that position and give it back to the community.”
The man who knew precisely what he wanted to do with his life in high school also knows how he wants to be remembered, whether he serves one term or two. “What I wanted was to leave a legacy that no one ever says is about Rick Snyder. It’s about saying ‘OK, this was the start of a good 20-year run, 30-year run, for a prosperous Michigan.'”
If that should end up being true, future politicians may end up worshipping at his statues.
Jack Lessenberry writes about people and issues in Michigan.