Stephen Henderson: Gov. Rick Snyder makes mark by putting Michigan first

Detroit Free Press

You lead through action. Not talk. Or promises.

Set a goal. Get it done.

Whatever you think of Gov. Rick Snyder politically (and we have had our disagreements, for sure) the deal he will announce today to build a new bridge across the Detroit River is the clearest demonstration to date of his leadership style.

Snyder believes deeply in the necessity of a second bridge — that it will grow trade relations between the world’s two largest partners in commerce; that it will create jobs in the flagging construction sector; that it will elevate the Detroit crossing to better compete with Buffalo, N.Y., which has five bridges.

From the start, the governor said his intention was to get it built. And from the start, the opposition was dug in.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun had managed to stall the previous governor, Jennifer Granholm, and the Legislature for years, protecting his monopoly crossing. Moroun doubled down on that opposition last year, inspiring a legislative rebuff of Snyder’s attempt to get the project going.

But Snyder persevered, worked a deal that goes around the Legislature, and today will claim victory. And from Michigan’s chair, it’s pretty sweet: No up-front money, no liability to repay anyone on the back end, and a 50% decision-making stake in the construction and operation of the span.

Also, take note of how monumental a deal this is: Canada’s prime minister will join the U.S. transportation secretary, at least one U.S. congressman and Snyder to announce it. They all get the value of this project to this region, on both sides of the border. The Legislature, still kowtowing to Moroun (and his political contributions) will look more small-minded and provincial than a town council.

Set a goal. Get it done.

Nothing else mattered.

The political risks here for the governor, at least on paper, are formidable.

Already, a House committee has passed a law seeking to prohibit any public money from being used for any phase of the bridge project. That’s in the Republican-controlled House that Snyder counts on to deliver other parts of his agenda.

And there’s no question that legislators in both chambers will see Snyder’s end run around their approval as a challenge to their authority, or that Moroun will leverage that resentment to try to block the project down the road.

But it’s important that Snyder defied his own party here, stuck to his own agenda, and did what he believed would be best for all Michigan.

Set a goal. Get it done.

One other telling aspect of Snyder’s leadership on this issue: When asked Thursday about whether the Morouns, who have spent millions trying to scuttle the bridge project and directly attacking the governor, ought to bid to be the private operator of the new bridge (that’s the way the deal is structured), Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said he not only hoped they’d try for the job, but that they’d win.

They’re good at it, and do it efficiently now with the Ambassador, Calley said.

That attitude goes a long way to back up Snyder’s constant refrain of governing without assessing blame and focusing on possible solutions rather than how intractable our problems are.

Lots of politicians talk that way. Few ever try to live up to it.

Not even two years into his first elective office, this bridge project is an important establishment of Snyder’s authority and of his independence. He either doesn’t fear the political fallout (likely, since legislators also need him to enact anything they want) or he just doesn’t think it matters as much as the state’s overall interests.

I wish he’d apply that same stubborn will to other important issues, whether it’s the GOP assault on gay families working at universities, or their loopy insistence on letting motorcycle riders drive up other people’s insurance rates by not wearing helmets. Too many times, Snyder has acquiesced to legislative lunacy. A lot of bad law has been made since January 2011.

But the bridge will be the signature public works project of the century in Michigan, something that will alter this place forever and, not unimportantly, be linked forever with the Snyder administration.

That’s a smart, substantive place to make a mark.

Set a goal. Get it done.