Howes: Mackinac gives lesson on Flint, politics, Eeyore

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

You don’t need to be a card-carrying member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Eeyore brigade to know the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference can reveal things not on the official program.

In his attempt to accentuate the positive, Gov. Rick Snyder could appear to be whitewashing the Flint lead water crisis and other failures.

Last week’s round up of 1,700 business and political leaders was no different. Start with the governor’s curious effort to re-energize enthusiasm for Michigan’s economic progress, for his agenda and for himself by likening certain members of the news media to Eeyore, the negative sad-sack in Winnie the Pooh stories.

Humorous, maybe. But it’s an ineffective rebuke to the realities of rising disapproval numbers, to bureaucratic failures in Flint and Detroit Public Schools, to evidence the administration and some of its key players are losing their mojo, and to the inability to corral House Republicans around anything resembling a Snyder agenda.

More precisely, executive time spent pivoting on the media usually is a sign of weakness, not strength. Just ask Donald Trump. His recurring whines about the media and its coverage violate a cardinal rule of big-time politics: never punch down. It’s diminishing.

This year’s Mackinac conference revealed key trends likely to play out the balance of the year. Here are five to watch, starting with the governor and what is becoming a deliberate campaign to rehabilitate his image, regain his footing and reset the narrative of his administration.

The biggest risk: appearing to be in a hurry to get past “Flint” and all that word signifies — the bureaucratic failures of government, the slow pace of legislative help, the posturing between state, federal and local officials. Why? Because the lead-tainted water crisis contradicts a relentlessly positive narrative buttressed by generally positive macro-economic numbers and Detroit’s successful run through Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

In his zeal to accentuate the positive, the governor sounds too much the revisionist trying to whitewash uncomfortable history. It didn’t play well with some folks at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and it won’t in Flint, where residents have spent two years — two years! — living with a municipal mess they did not create.

Second, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan once again threatened to steal a conference that’s carried the stamp of Michigan’s CEO-turned-governor since 2011, Snyder’s first year in office. The mayor’s closing argument in favor of the richer state Senate bill to rescue Detroit schools delivered a prosecutorial tour de force of hard-nosed analysis limned with appropriate moral outrage.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s displayed the kind of leadership that has the mayor’s stock rising among civic and business leaders.

It projected leadership, far more than any technocratic recitation of houses rehabbed, response times improved, streetlights fixed. The mayor’s stock is rising among civic and business leaders who measure success by results, the ability to form political coalitions and the willingness to exert power to achieve results; Duggan can do all three, effectively.

Third, the people who delivered the most drama on the island weren’t even there. At the behest of Speaker Kevin Cotter, House Republicans stayed in Lansing to deliver a pared-down, $617 million rescue package for DPS that Duggan, Democrats and even Republican members of the schools coalition oppose. But they’ll take it as a first step.

Why? Because Republican troubles are likely to mount as Election Day nears. Snyder and the Republican leadership have been tarnished by Flint and DPS, revenue shortfalls and economic development setbacks. A national ticket headed by Trump could have major implications for down-ballot races, including the Michigan House.

If Dems control the House next January, a new speaker named Tim Greimel could deliver the Detroit Education Commission favored by his party, Senate Republicans, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren, business groups and even the governor. He’d most likely sign the bill, handing Republicans another defeat.

Fourth, “mobility” is becoming the word of the year in the state that helped put America on wheels. From General Motors Co. President Dan Ammann to Lear Corp.’s Matt Simoncini and so many others, how and whether Michigan can position itself effectively to play a leading role in the convergence of traditional automaking with the tech-dominated mobility space is a central challenge for public-private partnership here.

The good news is that all sides seem to recognize the opportunity. The bad news is no one has yet emerged to assemble the coalition of business, government, higher education, nonprofits, even philanthropy to chart a new strategy to blunt Silicon Valley’s advance into Detroit territory.

Finally, the gambit for the new Wayne County Jail is underway. County Executive Warren Evans is soliciting proposals to complete the stalled project in Greektown even as his administration moves into more detailed talks with a partnership of mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores.

The word on the island is the numbers separating the Greektown project that Gilbert and Gores oppose from the Mound Road effort they favor are more likely to shrink than grow. If that’s proven right by deeper due diligence, Evans will ensure county taxpayers don’t get whacked more and the moguls will get their downtown mixed-use development, complete with a professional soccer venue.

Eeyore would be proud.

(313) 222-2106

Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.