Howes: Snyder legacy defined by fiscal muscle, Flint crisis, Detroit bankruptcy

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News


Rick Snyder's successful economic record as Michigan's governor will be marred by the state's handling of the Flint Water Crisis.

Two weeks from now, Rick Snyder will be just another former Michigan governor.

He'll retire, metaphorically speaking, to Ann Arbor and an indeterminate future that could include advising start-ups and teaching at this alma mater. From there, he’ll have a front-row seat to watch Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and her allies try to overturn what they deem the worst aspects of his tenure, to the extent the Republican-controlled Legislature allows it.

It’s a mixed legacy, replete with breakthrough successes and career-marring failures. Michigan’s rebound, arguably tied as much to a growing national economy as the business-friendly policies of Team Snyder, undeniably tracks the Snyder years. So does the revival of recapitalized automakers, a reinvigorated supply base and their push into the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, autonomy and electrification.

The state is more fiscally disciplined. Its business-tax climate is one of the most competitive in the country. Its unemployment rate is plumbing historic lows. And its largest city, given up for dead by so much of the country, quickly navigated municipal bankruptcy and is reviving on the strength of smart leadership and billions in private capital.

"I didn't know it was going to work for sure," Snyder told The Detroit News earlier this month, referring to the Chapter 9 bankruptcy of Detroit he ordered in July 2013. "But it was the right thing to do. And it had to happen. The citizens of Detroit, who are citizens of Michigan, deserved a better life. They weren't getting the services they deserved. Detroit's comeback has been a good thing for every corner of Michigan."

He's right. By both luck and design, Snyder can claim at least partial authorship for the reinvention that followed — any soon-to-be-former governor would, Republican or Democrat, given the state's rebound from the depths of the Great Recession and epic bankruptcies. But countervailing evidence looms, too.

The Flint water crisis will be a permanent stain on the Snyder years, a rebuttal of failure to the successes in Detroit. It's a lead-tainted affront to the people of the state’s second largest minority-majority city. It seriously undermined the credibility of government at all levels, unleashing a public health crisis likely to reverberate for years to come.  

Snyder's not solely responsible for the fiasco that exposed incompetence from the city and Genesee County to multiple state departments and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But as Michigan's governor throughout the whole sordid mess, the most singularly visible elected official who also appointed Flint's successive emergency managers, he pretty much owns it.

That's how politics and the sweep of history mesh, sometimes to challenging effect. Just ask another former Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, whose tenure coincided with the global financial meltdown. Among other things, it pushed two of Detroit's three automakers into federally induced bankruptcies, slammed auto suppliers and pushed the state's unemployment rate north of 14 percent.

At least she can disclaim responsibility for the macro-economic forces that toppled the hometown industry, pitching the state into a downward economic spiral that forced her to pile massive, costly tax incentives on the slowly recovering automakers. When it comes to Flint, Snyder doesn't have that luxury.

Nor can he deny that educational attainment among Michigan's public-school students is worse today than when he took the oath of office. Or that the roads in the state that put America on wheels are a bone-jarring embarrassment, cement and asphalt confirmation of political dysfunction in Lansing and Snyder's inability to muscle his own party in the Legislature.

And Snyder's feud with Attorney General Bill Schuette, the failed Republican nominee for governor, split the party and hobbled its chances to retain the governor's mansion. Schuette proved to be a poor candidate, too yoked to the increasingly unpopular President Donald Trump; Snyder's complete abandonment of his would-be successor didn't help.

But it was nonetheless honest. In an age of incivility at the highest levels of national politics, Snyder's brand of politics is a welcome return to norms he labeled "relentless positive action." He's nominally partisan amid hyper-partisanship, a business-minded Republican less captive to party ideology, a pragmatic technocrat more likely to work with Detroit's democratic mayor than the right wing of his own party.

In that way, the CEO and venture capitalist-turned-politician is an anachronism, out of step with his party's zeitgeist — and proudly so. Asked to reflect on his two terms as governor, he touts the repeal of the Michigan Business Tax ("the dumbest tax in the country"), the disciplined effort to pay down long-term pension liabilities for public employees and teachers, the creation of 560,000 private-sector jobs, the return of college graduates.

"Our young people were flocking out of the state," he said. "We're the top state for in-bound bachelor's degrees in the Great Lake states over the past three years. Look at Detroit: Detroit was the most troubled urban area in our country for how many years. Now it's viewed as one of the most exciting places in our country, where young people want to come from around the world to live and work."

Yet momentum can flag, slowed by changing leadership, tougher economic times and short memories. Advantages can be relinquished, surrendered by political leaders who enable weak financial management to secure short-term political gain that does long-term economic damage.

"People sort of forget what the state of Michigan was like in 2008, nine and ten," Snyder said. "And they sort of start taking it for granted and get complacent. Complacency and contentment — that's what concerns me. And we need to stay on the gas. If we do that, it's incredible the opportunities that are still out there."


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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 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.