Mackinac Island — Gov. Rick Snyder can read the polls as well as anyone questioning whether he still has the confidence of Michigan residents.
“I don’t think we’ve lost it,” Snyder told The Detroit News Wednesday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “If you look at the results going on in the state, we’re doing very well economically.”
Michigan’s accountant-in-chief, bruised by the Flint water crisis and a series of legislative setbacks, is seeking refuge in the numbers. Not in polls showing a majority of the state now views him unfavorably, but in his pivot to stats reporting 460,000 jobs created across the state since 2010, the 100,000 people who’ve rejoined the workforce this year, and rising per capita personal income.
All of it, and more, is true and neatly detailed in new pocket cards headlined “Michigan’s Greatest Hits” and distributed by the governor. They’re also evidence, along with more frequent speeches and appearances around the state in recent weeks, that a coordinated effort is well underway to rehabilitate Snyder’s image, reassert his mantra of “relentless positive action” and salvage the final two-plus years of his term.
“If you don’t stay Mr. RPA,” says Rich Baird, a senior aide to Snyder, “the other people win. I think he’s just being Rick Snyder. He’s always been a fixer. What’s the problem? Help me get to it.”
Maybe so, but reality intrudes. The hard facts that Flint residents have gone two years without regular and clean municipal water; the embarrassment that state control over Detroit Public Schools for 14 of the past 17 years is a demonstrated failure; the crumbling road and bridge infrastructure in the state that helped put the world on wheels.
Later in the day, the governor used his conference welcome to say “the reports of my demise are well overblown.” He compared the news media to Eeyore, the sad-sack pessimist of Winnie the Pooh lore, and exhorted people to “not let people get yourself down. Let’s recognize the positive. Let’s recognize the serious issues and be leaders.”
The governor is launching a relentlessly positive counter-offensive at this year’s confab, 1,700 of the state’s most prominent business and political leaders. Simmering beneath the surface of solid economic numbers and huge auto profits here is a sense that the alignment forged during Detroit’s epic bankruptcy — of Lansing and Detroit, of the city and suburbs, of labor and management — could once again be fraying.
The Great Lakes Water Authority is riven by a battle over contracting and charges of cronyism. Detroit Public Schools reform is caught in a jam of ideology and mistrust. An ambitious regional transit plan once again faces the age-old hurdle: those who need it can’t pay, and those who don’t need it don’t want to pay.
Missing is the convener, the referee with credibility across the political spectrum. Snyder played the role deftly during during Detroit’s bankruptcy, but he’s struggling to repeat the feat and improve the narrative in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis and the protracted drama surrounding a legislative rescue of DPS.
“You need on all of these things a bipartisan referee,” says John Rakolta, chairman of Walbridge Co., the Detroit-based construction giant. “That’s what a bankruptcy judge is. Here’s the issue all the time — you have two sets of facts. Which ones are true? What happened to the cohesion we talked about?”
Good question. Cracks in regional unity risk resurfacing the same ol’ issues — schools, transportation and water — and the same ol’ questions: who will pay, who will benefit, who can be trusted, and who can’t. With apologies to Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again.
The cohesion wrought by bankruptcy and crystallized in the “grand bargain” rescuing the Detroit Institute of Arts and bolstering the pensions of city retirees in retrospect looks more like an artificial construct imposed on continually warring factions.
Absent strong executive leadership like Snyder demonstrated during the bankruptcy case, bad ol’ habits are more likely than not to re-emerge because they’re politically defensible when defined in narrowly local terms. It doesn’t profit Oakland County’s elected officials to accede to Detroit demands any more than it benefits Detroit Democrats to accept terms proffered by west Michigan Republicans.
That may run counter to politically correct — and economically smart — conventional wisdom, but it’s cold, hard reality in a representative democracy. Tax-paying constituents are ignored at the peril of elected officials, as Republican voters demonstrated in this year’s presidential primaries.
“Things are moving in the state in general and in Detroit,” says Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Council member and co-founded of Citizen Detroit. “If we lose momentum ... the consequences are astronomical. We cannot afford to go back.”
Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.