Howes: Snyder’s next act? Make business case for Mich.

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Less than a year from now, Gov. Rick Snyder will be a private citizen looking for something to do — with the blessing, he says, of wife Sue.

Here’s a suggestion for the still-first couple to consider: leverage the governor’s eight years of accumulated economic development chops at home and abroad, his background in venture capital and a keen sense of next-generation technology to evangelize for Michigan as a global center of mobility.

The state needs all the help it can get. As much as Michigan is making a play to establish next-generation mobility assets in the shadow of last-generation automakers, the simple fact is that the state that put the world on wheels is guaranteed nothing — nothing — in the coming tech-fueled battle with Silicon Valley.

It needs more change, not less. It needs to attract more talent, not less, with real opportunity. It needs outside investors on the coasts and overseas to better understand the realities — and limits — of Michigan’s economic revival, its technical competence, its cultural ticks.

That’s not an easy sell. The state is burdened by historically rooted legacies not easily shaken: of bankruptcy and urban blight; of work-a-day manufacturing more than engineering excellence; of a prevailing culture whose bias tends to favor a job after high school graduation, not more education.

The result: Michigan is falling further behind rival states in educational attainment and its ability to credibly compete for next-generation talent. How can Michigan become a global hub for Auto 2.0’s trifecta of mobility, autonomy and electrification if it can’t really educate its own kids?

It can’t. Negative images of Detroit don’t help, either, as Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert reminded business, civic and political leaders who contributed to the failed effort to woo Amazon.com Inc.’s second North American headquarters here.

“Old, negative reputations do not die easily,” he wrote them in a letter dated Tuesday. “I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face. We are still dealing with the unique radioactive-like reputational fallout of 50-60 years of economic decline, disinvestment, municipal bankruptcy, and all of the other associated negative consequences of that extraordinarily long period of time.”

Exactly right. Amazon cited a lack of mass-transit and the region’s trouble attracting talent as two reasons to drop Detroit from its list of 20 finalists. But stains of history are more indelible, erasable only with time, positive momentum and a narrative grounded more in fact than caricature.

Snyder, a tech CEO-turned-venture capitalist before his improbable run for governor eight years ago, could deliver heft and credibility to Michigan’s story. He knows the private sector, understands the public sector and has spent a considerable chunk of this tenure in office backing win-win partnerships that utilize the strengths of both.

He’s not a professional politician playing businessman. Before his detour into elected office, Snyder built a career in real-world business — big-league accounting, Gateway computers, the venture-capital space that tries to pick winners from losers ... and doesn’t always succeed.

Plus, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a two-term Michigan governor actually stay in the state and live with the consequences of his leadership instead of decamp for the coasts — Jennifer Granholm to Berkeley (natch’), Jim Blanchard and John Engler to Washington?

The question answers itself. Now, politics being what they are, his successor likely would be less than enthusiastic about Snyder stumping the country, Asia, Europe, even the Middle East, to make the case for Michigan and its place in the 21st-century knowledge economy.

Spare us the insecurity. Snyder’s nominally partisan outlook, underscored in the closing of his final State of the State address Tuesday, would be an asset to business leaders (and to his successor, Republican or Democrat) trying to navigate the hyper-partisanship in the era of Trump and the Resistance Left.

There’s no textbook here. There’s no reason (save, I don’t know, jealousy) that a former governor couldn’t help the team make the case for Michigan, for leadership in mobility, for foreign investment, for an independent think tank devoted to competitiveness.

No, if the past decade around here has taught anything, it’s that the old rules no longer apply. Partisanship fails, but partnership wins. The Old Economy doesn’t trump the New Economy in terms of job and wealth creation.

And assets? They should be leveraged for what they do best.


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