Howes: Flint, legal spats open split between Snyder, AG

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The schism is widening between Michigan’s top two Republicans.

Credit the legal jeopardy posed by the Flint water crisis, controversial decisions challenging special interests like the teachers lobby and Attorney General Bill Schuette’s unmistakable desire to succeed Rick Snyder as governor come 2018.

Not that the AG will say as much. He can’t because he shouldn’t. But the growing record of disagreement between Schuette and Snyder has a recurring political byproduct: Positioning the AG for the next big office, and sometimes doing it at the expense of the state’s chief executive.

The latest move is Schuette’s decision this week to decline “to provide counsel” for Snyder’s planned appeal of a court ruling. The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the state to reimburse public school employees $550 million for unconstitutionally deducting health care benefits from their paychecks.

Snyder says repaying the sum would have negative implications for the state retirement system. That may be true, but Schuette and his team concluded the case is a loser, roughly mirroring Snyder’s decision to abandon the AG’s challenge to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury pollution control regulations.

The governor pushed an increase in the state gas tax last year as part of the Proposal 1 roads package; voters rejected it by a roughly 4-to-1 margin. Schuette, a regular commuter between his Lansing office and his Midland home, opposed the increase and put himself on the right side of the electoral blowout.

Bottom line: Fraternal harmony between the two it ain’t, even if they hail from the same party. Institutional rivalry is baked into Michigan’s top two elected offices. Each carries different mandates and different constitutional responsibilities, and they do not always align.

The Flint water crisis exacerbates the division. Well-documented evidence of incompetence at the local, state, even federal levels offers the fodder for both civil and criminal investigations — and the AG is using it, the better to (theoretically) inoculate his political prospects from Republican complicity in the morass.

That won’t be easy. Like it or not, the Flint fiasco is associated with Republican governance because a Republican occupies the governor’s office, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, and Republican-backed (and revised) legislation on the controversial emergency manager law is blamed (arguably inaccurately) for decisions precipitating the crisis.

The political context is not slowing Schuette and his team. They have already charged three people criminally. Two consulting firms hired to advise Flint on its switch away from Detroit water are the targets of a civil lawsuit. And Schuette told The Detroit News just before the Independence Day holiday that “more criminal charges could come soon, maybe this summer.”

The governor is not immune. Schuette is increasingly pointed in his complaint that criminal lawyers retained by Snyder in the Flint water case are failing to comply with requests for documents, emails and text messages sought by the AG’s team investigating the Flint fiasco.

Investigators, including Schuette himself, unambiguously say neither the governor nor his inner circle are excluded from their investigations. That’s a clear signal partisan kinship is scant comfort in a high-profile case fraught with politics, race, official culpability and the glare of intense media scrutiny.

Three-way talks are continuing between the AG’s investigative team, state lawyers representing Michigan taxpayers and the governor’s criminal defense counsel. If they break down, sources close to the situation say, it is likely the AG would ask the courts to compel the governor’s lawyers to comply — perhaps this month.

Tension between the governor and the state’s attorney general is not necessarily new. For at least the past 25 years the governor and the AG hailed from different parties — John Engler and Frank Kelley, Engler and Jennifer Granholm, Granholm and Mike Cox.

But with the exception of two years in the early 1960s, only twice in the past 55 years have the governor and AG hailed from the same party: Between 1983 and 1990, when Democrat Jim Blanchard was governor and Kelley AG. And now.

Personality differences don’t help. Snyder, an accountant-turned-CEO, is a data-driven manager who prefers to delegate to experts trusted to do their job. Sometimes they do, as in the Detroit’s epic bankruptcy and the financial management that made it successful. And sometimes they don’t, as in the Flint water crisis.

Schuette is more relationship-driven and more deeply invested in Republican Party politics, statewide and nationally. He’s an old(er) school pol who remembers names, pours coffee at small-town fundraisers and wears his sense of duty — see his Twitter handle, @SchuetteOnDuty — on his sleeve.

And if de facto separation from Snyder is effective, Schuette will be the Republican nominee for governor two years from now.

(313) 222-2106

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