July 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm

2010 Gubernatorial Candidate: Rick Snyder

Snyder on quest to 'reinvent' Mich.

Gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder
Gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder: An interview with the Republican candidate for governor

Grand Ledge -- The soft-spoken, silver-haired candidate at the front of the room handled the crowd with the aplomb of a seasoned pro.

Rick Snyder laid out his vision for the state and then fielded questions from an audience of 80 with authority and self-deprecating humor during a town hall this month at the Grand Ledge Opera House.

"We have all these white papers on our website," he says to a man who asked for more details. "If you have insomnia, go there. We can help you."

Flash back to a news conference last July in front of the State Capitol. Snyder shifted uneasily during his squeaky-voiced announcement to the media that he was running for governor. He looked and sounded like he wasn't sure he'd made the right decision.

The 51-year-old Ann Arbor venture capitalist has come a long way in a year. Or has he? He's beginning to perform in public events like the career politicians he's running against.

But the veteran businessman, who once ran the successful Gateway computers company, has delivered the same message throughout.

"There are some good, well-intentioned people running," Snyder says. "But they're career politicians. They come from the broken system. They want to fix Lansing. But that's not good enough. We need to reinvent Michigan."

Economics is sole focus

He's trying to convince voters that a guy with business acumen -- and no political experience -- can save a languishing state. It's all about jobs and the economy and working the right business plan, Snyder says. He acknowledges he has no social agenda, a message heard with some trepidation by conservative Republican primary voters.

Snyder wants to toss out the unpopular Michigan Business Tax and replace it with a flat 6 percent profits tax. He'd also revamp government so it treats taxpayers more like customers. And he'd focus on beefing up environmental protection and transportation, including mass transit.

Running a close third in most polls, Snyder is eschewing special interest endorsements, PAC contributions and even a couple of party-sponsored debates in keeping with his profile as an outsider riding into town to make Michigan right again.

He's pouring millions from his own fortune into TV ads that have labeled him a "tough nerd" in an effort to cut through the clutter of a five-man race.

Snyder is seen as the moderate in the contest, which was underscored this week when his campaign announced a ramped-up effort to reach independents and cross-over Democratic voters to be led by former moderate Republican congressman Joe Schwarz. The plan is to capture a piece of the GOP base along with nontraditional primary voters while the other candidates carve up the conservative vote.

Public service next on list

His candidacy is part two of a specific three-tier career plan Snyder set for himself as a teenager. He was to start in the private sector, learn the world of work inside out and be successful enough to afford to do other things. Check that box. Now comes public service, followed by teaching in his twilight years.

"I've always been a fairly focused person," Snyder says.

His career plan is loosely based on his father's life. Snyder grew up in Battle Creek, the son of older parents. His mother was 45 when he was born. He has a sister 20 years older.

"My father came out of the Depression era. He would run businesses for people. He ran Ford dealerships and then a window-cleaning business, which he eventually bought," Snyder says.

After he sold the business, his father became involved in township government.

Snyder said he's different from his father, however, in that he has learned to welcome and manage risk rather than avoid it. His father, he says, was risk-averse.

"I'd say I'm more entrepreneurial."

Bob Anthony, a Snyder mentor at Coopers & Lybrand, a Detroit accounting firm, says he saw early that his protégé was "very, very bright ... a good thinker. He was excellent at problem analysis. He could cut to the heart of an issue so you could focus on solutions."

Gateway success challenged

He moved on to Gateway and at every campaign stop he boasts that he took the company of 700 and helped it grow to a staff of more than 10,000 during the information technology boom.

But the scaling back of Gateway after Snyder left his executive post and joined the company's board of directors has been a target of his critics. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, another Republican candidate for governor, rarely misses an opportunity to point out that Gateway shifted operations overseas, shedding American jobs and hiring thousands in China.

Snyder says he didn't send one job out of the country as chief operating officer. He said decisions were made about outsourcing when he was a minority voice on the board.

"There was not a board vote on it. It was not a board decision; it was a management call," he says.

Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, another frequent Snyder critic, said he's not buying that defense.

"The board of directors is responsible for what a company does. He can't take credit when the company is successful and then not take blame when the company does things he doesn't like," Brewer says. "Also, he made an enormous amount of money as a result of those jobs going overseas."

Jim Wharton, who worked with Snyder as an executive at Gateway in Sioux City, S.D., says of the candidate: "He knows how to make things work. He's a nerd, no doubt about it. He was way beyond most of us on technology markets."

He says the notion that Snyder presided over Gateway's U.S. decline is a bad rap.

"Rick Snyder created jobs here," Wharton says. "When he came back, the company had changed significantly. I know we miss him in Sioux City."

After he left Gateway, Snyder became a venture capitalist, starting companies like HealthMedia, a digital health consulting service.

He also was involved in the founding of SPARK, an economic development outfit based in Ann Arbor. He was the first chairman of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state agency that has come under recent fire. And he serves on the boards of the Nature Conservancy and the Sphinx Organization, which introduces classical music to African-American and Latino audiences.

During a recent business roundtable discussion on a Lansing radio talk show, Snyder faced tough questions, such as: How does a guy accustomed to running a business without interference bargain with the 148-member Michigan Legislature?

"You have to negotiate in business, too," Snyder replies. "When was the last time you told your customer what to do?"

Peggy Doty of Doty Mechanical, a heating and air conditioning company, would say later: "Some businessmen who try to run for office assume dealing with the Legislature is like dealing with your vendors. It doesn't happen that way."

On the issues

Abortion : Opposes, but makes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother
Embryonic stem cell research : Supports
Detroit River International Crossing : Supports, as long as long-term costs not imposed on Michigan residents
Tax on services : Opposes at this time
Affirmative action ban : Opposes, but will uphold voter decision
Right to work : Not a priority
Part-time Legislature : Open to the idea, but it's not on his agenda
Gas tax increase for roads : Not at this time
Arizona-style immigration law for Michigan : Would consider

A year of campaigning has honed Rick Snyder's pitch that Lansing needs a business leader for governor. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News