The gubernatorial debate on Mackinac Island was underwhelming, columnists Nolan Finley and Daniel Howes agree, but Abdul El-Sayed stood out. DPTV


Mackinac Island — The greatest threat to the United States is not North Korea or Iran, Gov. Rick Snyder this week told Michigan business and political leaders.

“Our greatest threat is us.”

The term-limited Republican used the final Mackinac Policy Conference of his eight-year tenure to reinforce his call for civility in politics and public life, bemoaning the harsh rhetoric and polarization that has only grown during his time in office.  

“It should never be something you give up on,” Snyder said from a rocking chair on the porch of the Grand Hotel, telling reporters he hopes the proverbial pendulum will swing back soon. “It’s gotten to the point now, you know, how much further can it go?”

In an emotional keynote at the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual policy confab, which also functioned as an exercise in legacy building for Snyder, the former technology executive urged business officials to “vote for leadership” and beware of political candidates who talk about “fighting.”

Snyder told The Detroit News he intends to keep pushing for civility in some role even after he leaves office at the end of the year, suggesting a breakdown in thoughtful dialogue has eroded trust in government and institutions.

So did the Flint water contamination crisis, Snyder told reporters in a subsequent media session, acknowledging a major mark on his legacy he hopes will not completely define it.

The Flint crisis was “a step back in terms of trust — there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But hopefully … most Michiganders feel better off, more excited about the state’s future, than when I took office.”

'Relentless Positive Action'

Snyder has played an active role in shaping the annual policy agenda at the Mackinac conference, which traditionally functions as a booze-fueled networking event that he said he had grown weary of as a civilian.

During his time in officer, however, the governor has used the island gathering to help broker major deals, including planned construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge that will connect Detroit and Windsor. His hand-on approach has made him a popular figure at the event.

Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, renamed the 2018 Mackinac confab the “Relentless Positive Action” conference, an ode to the oft-repeated mantra of a governor he called “transformative” for the state.

“He is a different kind of leader,” Baruah told The News, praising Snyder’s non-confrontational style and the economic gains under the governor. “When you look at Michigan’s business outcomes right now versus where they were eight years ago, it’s almost a completely different state.”

Snyder has maintained a positive attitude “despite some withering criticism, which I thought really showed the true leadership in him,” said John Rakolta, a Republican financier and CEO of the Detroit-based Walbridge construction firm. “When he took over, the future was bleak.”

Business and political leaders say Snyder’s pragmatic approach and general aversion to political bomb-throwing sets him apart from most of the Republican and Democratic candidates now running to replace him, who debated at the conference Thursday night.

"He doesn't like polarization, but we're headed that way, and he doesn't like conflict, but we're headed that way," said Jim Haveman, who worked under Snyder as the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services until suffering a mild heart attack in 2014.

"We're headed towards people stating their positions and finding no middle ground," he said. "I would like to see a candidate who can rise above it."

Divergent views

Snyder and his supporters point to more than 540,000 private-sector jobs created during his tenure and an unemployment rate that is near a 17-year low. But other indicators show Michigan is heading in the wrong direction, said Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic candidate for governor who pointed to low labor participation rates and stagnant growth in inflation-adjusted wages.

“If you sell a product, the commercial is never going to say that product has flaws, and all of these folks have been in the business of selling the same product for a long time,” said El-Sayed. The former Detroit health director criticized the conference but used the opportunity to mingle with business officials and the press.

“You go into communities like the one my mom grew up in, in Gratiot County, and you tell them the economy is back, and they’ll laugh at you," he said. "That’s exactly what Hillary Clinton tried to do.”

Snyder does not get enough credit for his work in Detroit and shepherding the city through bankruptcy, said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a Republican and former congresswoman.

“The former governor never would have done that,” she said about Democrat Jennifer Granholm and the historic Chapter 9 filing authorized by Snyder when he replaced her. “This governor pushed it along, and they were able to restructure and put themselves on a very good foundation.”

In his swan song address, Snyder told business leaders that being governor has been an “incredible opportunity” for him.

But he again acknowledged the Flint water crisis, saying “some terrible things have happened on my watch.” His own task force blamed Snyder's emergency managers and negligence by his environmental regulators for “failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice” in creating the lead contamination. 

Every gubernatorial tenure has “ups and downs, highs and lows,” Miller said. “But I think this governor, overall, gets an excellent rating.”

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