Bridge-building governor ‘one tough nerd’

Rick Snyder comes across as smart, focused, methodical, relentless and unflappable

By Anne Jarvis, The Windsor Star

Jennifer Granholm, John Engler, James Blanchard — for a decade, all three former governors of Michigan grappled with a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

Then came Gov. Rick Snyder, the nerd with the squeaky voice in his first stint in political office. Less than two years after being sworn in, he had a deal to build the crossing. How he got it sums up how he governs.

“He’s one of the most impressive examples of executive leadership I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot,” says Sandy Baruah, former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce, now head of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

“Just about every roadblock was thrown up against this guy on this bridge — politically, legally, even unfair smears against him personally.”

“He just found a way, an inventive way, to do it and just kept pushing.”

And as Richard McLellan, a prominent Lansing lawyer who has advised several former governors, says, “The guy is very unique.”

He’s smart, focused, methodical, relentless and unflappable. He’s so nonpartisan he’s practically apolitical. He doesn’t seem concerned about his image or polls. He doesn’t think in election cycles; he thinks long-term.

He’s down-to-earth, matter-of-fact and upbeat. He rarely wears a tie, doesn’t travel with a big entourage and is surprisingly accessible. He stops in to see Baruah sometimes — just leaves his driver and pops in by himself. Baruah takes off his tie and hangs it on a hook labelled “Emergency Rick Snyder Tie Holder.”

Snyder calls himself “one tough nerd” (he still tweets under that name) and his mantra is “relentless positive action.”

“He is as advertised,” Baruah says. “He’s just a guy doing his job. His job just happens to be governor of one of the largest states in the country.”

He still hasn’t warmed to political dinners and events “because he’s not a politician,” says McLellan.

“You’d like to clone him,” said Perrin Beatty, former federal cabinet minister and head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce who met with Snyder about the new bridge. “It’s very refreshing to find someone like this.”

What Snyder, 53, his hair prematurely white, believes in is the private sector. He used to borrow Forbes and Businessweek magazines from a neighbour when he was a kid growing up in a tiny house in Battle Creek, where his father had a window cleaning business.

He enrolled in a business class at the local community college when he was a teenager and started at the University of Michigan before graduating from high school, earning an undergraduate degree, MBA and law degree by age 23.

He went on to become president and chief operating officer of computer company Gateway, then started his own venture capital and investment firms in Ann Arbor. He’s a self-made multimillionaire.

“Our goal is to enable the best playing field and let economic freedom work, let people be successful in building their businesses,” he said at a town hall meeting in Monroe this week.

Snyder had political aspirations, and in 2009, the story goes, he was frustrated with the state’s political wrangling in the midst of a recession. So his wife, Sue, suggested he do something about it and run for office. Few people knew who he was. He certainly wasn’t the Republicans’ first choice. Even if he was elected, few thought he would get anything done because of his inexperience.

McLellan didn’t support him in the primary.

“I thought somebody who doesn’t have a political background couldn’t be successful running nor be a successful governor,” he said. “I was 100 per cent wrong on both counts.”

He ran as an outsider with new ideas, asking people to think of themselves as Michiganders, not as people from a certain region or party. He did dozens of town hall meetings, walking in the front door with everyone else, introducing himself, presenting his plan and answering questions.

“He gave very good, clear, honest answers, non-political answers,” said Joe Fitzsimmons, his campaign treasurer. “People were sick and tired of the usual politics. This was very significant change.”

After eight years under the Democrats, ending in a devastating recession, Snyder won in a landslide, bringing with him decisive Republican majorities in the legislature. In his first year in office, he balanced the budget and introduced major tax and pension reform. It was controversial; a citizens’ group last year launched a petition to recall him. But he matter-of-factly told the town hall meeting this week: “You hired me to reinvent Michigan and take on some of the really ugly issues.”

Now, he has a reputation for getting things done. People compare him to Engler.

“Snyder is very, very smart, very strategic,” said McLellan. “He always thinks at least three moves ahead.”

Snyder didn’t take a position on the new bridge during the campaign, but within weeks of taking office, it became a priority.

“It was a big issue,” he told me in an interview after the town hall meeting, appearing relaxed, the collar of his blue dress shirt open, of course. “So I did my homework. I dove into the issue and pulled together all the research, the different opportunities, the ideas. Once you start looking at this issue, it’s truly compelling. This doesn’t take a lot of thought to say this crossing is just a fabulous opportunity for Michigan, for Canada, for all of us. So I became very strongly behind it.”

“There was a co-ordinated effort to make sure we provided the governor with all the information he needed,” said Blanchard, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and lobbyist for the new bridge, who spoke with Snyder shortly after the election.

Then-Canadian Transport Minister Chuck Strahl, Canadian Consul General Roy Norton and a contingent of Canadians met with Snyder to discuss the bridge before he was sworn in. Snyder didn’t even have an office yet, so they used a meeting room at the Capitol in Lansing. The meeting was scheduled to be an hour and a half. It lasted three hours.

“He was in full student mode,” remembered Norton. “He was inquiring in great detail. He needed to satisfy himself about many things, including that the bridge wouldn’t actually cost Michigan anything. He needed to understand the nature and extent of the Canadian commitment, both financially and politically.”

“The thing that was clear to me, that made the governor somewhat unusual ” recalled Strahl, “was that he didn’t accept any corporate donations to his campaign. That gave him a far more open mind than we’d seen sometimes in the past because he wasn’t beholden to anybody. He didn’t owe (Ambassador Bridge owner) Matty Moroun the time of day. That meant we were talking about the value of the proposition, whether it made sense or not. Frankly, that was why, in my mind, he just cut to the chase. He’s just a bottom-line guy.”

In part because of that meeting, Snyder concluded the new bridge was a good deal.

Six days after he was inaugurated, he secured a commitment from Washington allowing him to use the $550 million from Canada for the new bridge to get $2 billion in matching grants for new roads across the state. It was an incredible deal — from a Democratic president.

Then he shocked his party, many of whom had accepted money from Moroun and opposed a new bridge, by announcing in his first State of the State address that the new crossing was a top priority.

“It’s time to build the new … bridge,” he said flatly.

In fact, he talked more about Canada than any other Michigan governor.

Then, last fall, the state senate’s economic development committee rejected a new bridge, preventing the proposal from being brought to the full senate for a vote. So Snyder began considering bypassing his own party.

“I didn’t go around the legislature. I think that’s an important nuance,” he told me. “I tried to say, ‘What are our other options?’ Since it doesn’t involve taxpayer appropriation, there really isn’t a need to involve the legislature. The way I viewed it is they didn’t really vote it down; they just voted to say they didn’t want it on the agenda. Fine, since it doesn’t involve taxpayer appropriation, we can look at doing an interlocal agreement.

Snyder knew about interlocal agreements. He was chairman of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and created the Education Achievement Authority, both established with interlocal agreements. Blanchard and others had already lobbied for such an agreement for the new bridge during Granholm’s administration.

One Republican senator told the Detroit News he didn’t like being ignored, but he admired the governor’s leadership.

The Ambassador Bridge, a powerful interest with deep pockets, intent on protecting its monopoly, says it has enough signatures on a petition to get a referendum on the new bridge on the ballot in elections in November.

It also owns land needed for the new crossing. And it’s expected to fight Snyder’s deal in court.

But Snyder, who has called for a public relations campaign to counter television ads by the Ambassador Bridge, remains measured and upbeat.

“I’ll just continue on this path,” he told me. “That’s why I have a phrase called relentless positive action. We stay positive but we keep working. If we get sued, we’ll keep working. If we need land, there are well established ways to deal with that. It just continues to move forward.”