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Flint crisis isolates Snyder

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — One year after flirting with a presidential run, Gov. Rick Snyder is fighting for political relevance in the midst of fallout and finger-pointing over the Flint water contamination catastrophe.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pauses while testifying before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, Thursday, March 17, 2016, to look into the circumstances surrounding high levels of lead found in many residents' tap water in Flint, Michigan. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Instead of taking the “Michigan comeback story” across the country, he has spent the past three months facing protests and even death threats at home. He is the target of a long-shot petition drive seeking to force a statewide recall election.

The vice presidential buzz has died, the prospect of a cabinet appointment has evaporated and Fortune magazine on Wednesday listed Snyder among the “World’s 19 Most Disappointing Leaders.”

Snyder ranked among world’s 19 ‘disappointing leaders’

But on Thursday, Snyder is making his first state business trip outside Michigan since declaring on Jan. 5 a state emergency in Flint — except for his March 17 testimony in Washington, D.C., before a congressional committee. He will visit New York to talk to credit agencies, economic development site selectors and even a group of journalists.

It appears to be the first attempt at emerging from crisis management and injecting some normalcy into the governor’s schedule.

“I’m sure that Gov. Snyder would give anything to go back in time to 2015, back when everybody was speculating he was going to run for president or be on the ticket,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “… It has been a pretty amazing turnaround.”

While Snyder’s stock has dropped, veteran GOP Lansing consultant Tom Shields said many Republicans at the state and national levels still support Snyder and remain “sympathetic” on the Flint crisis.

“Once that gets behind him, I think people will take a look at his overall record,” Shields said, noting the state’s lowest jobless rate in nearly 15 years.

Snyder, a businessman who had not held elected office before running for governor in 2010, has acknowledged the Flint crisis will be part of his legacy. He has cited failures at all levels of government for causing the lead contamination and vowed to restore clean, safe drinking water in the city.

Experts say any possible political future for Snyder — a cabinet position in a Republican administration or another post — now largely depends on when and if he makes good on the promises.

“I think there would be a close calculation made before Rick Snyder goes anywhere beyond the governor’s office to see whether dealing with the Flint crisis is worth it on a larger scale,” said Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

“Usually when parties are talking about elevating or promoting their own people to other positions, you have to look at what the liabilities are of that person.”

The businessman who had not held elected office before becoming governor in 2010 concedes the Flint crisis will be part of his legacy.

National ambitions

Snyder sparked presidential speculation around this time last year, when members of his inner circle launched a new nonprofit fund allowing him to travel the country and talk about Michigan’s economic rebound under his watch.

He had much to tout, including a falling unemployment rate, private-sector job growth, Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy and a gubernatorial re-election that suggested blue state support for his “relentless positive” approach to problem solving.

Snyder was not well known among national voters, but he was part of a group of potential GOP candidates with executive experience and prominent roles in their respective states, Gonzales said.

News reports mentioned him along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is now the only governor remaining in the race.

“I think Washington has such a poor reputation, or people hold Washington in such low regard, so any time the presidential election comes up there’s a natural inclination to look outside the beltway,” Gonzales said, referencing the lure of gubernatorial candidates.

The presidential speculation reached its zenith during a late April meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, where Snyder rubbed elbows with mega donor Sheldon Adelson and other coalition members.

Snyder decided against a presidential run, indicating in May that he would still promote Michigan across the country but focus on continuing the state’s “reinvention” and solving “historic issues.” His national tour was later put on hold in light of the Flint water catastrophe — a historic issue few saw coming.

“The story about him and Michigan leading up to this is now secondary to him. What’s more important is to deal with this crisis and do the right thing within this crisis,” said Bobby Schostak, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who helped raise money for Snyder’s national road show.

Instead of appearing on the ballot as a candidate, Snyder’s most prominent role in Michigan’s presidential primary was as a punching bag on the Flint crisis for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton for the first time joined Sanders in calling on him to resign during a March 6 debate in Flint.

Republican presidential candidates did not publicly seek his support, and he did not endorse anyone ahead of the March 8 primary.

“I’d say for the most part he is persona non grata,” said Kelly Rossman, a Democratic public relations expert and co-founder of the Lansing-based Truscott-Rossman firm. “… I think that not only has this dramatically changed his legacy, and his tenure as governor, but it’s really marginalized him.”

Gov. Rick Snyder has been targeted by protesters in Lansing, his home in Ann Arbor and Flint, above, over his administration’s handling of the water crisis.

Under attack at home

Snyder has been targeted by protesters in Lansing and at his home in Ann Arbor, one of the cities where his face has been plastered on “wanted” signs “for poisoning children.”

A fellow patron heckled him in January as he was leaving the Old Town Tavern near his downtown Ann Arbor condominium, asking “How was your water? Was it clean?”

Before the March 3 Republican presidential debate in Detroit, demonstrators used a spotlight to splash “Snyder poisoned Flint” on the side of the Fox Theatre.

The University of Michigan Law School postponed a February forum where the governor was expected to discuss one of his proudest moments, the resolution of Detroit’s bankruptcy case.

Congressional Democrats piled on this month with scathing criticism when the governor testified about Flint before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Four of them called for him to resign, with Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania saying with contempt: “I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.” The oversight panel’s leading Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, suggested that if Snyder had been the CEO of a children’s toy company that sold toys with lead, “he would be hauled up on criminal charges.”

Snyder, speaking to The Detroit News editorial board in February, noted the “broad-based” response to the Flint crisis has included everything “from wanting to have me arrested to have me shot.”

A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police confirmed the department is aware of death threats against the governor and said “we deal with each one appropriately.”

The Flint controversy has taken its toll on Snyder, said John Truscott, a Republican consultant and co-founder of Truscott-Rossman.

“He’s not an emotional person by nature, but you can see emotion when he talks about it, when he thinks about it. I know he’s taking this personally,” Truscott said.

It was on display during the nearly four-hour congressional hearing.

“This is a tragedy that never should have happened,” Snyder told Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who questioned what he knew and when he knew it. “I understand the anger of the people of Flint. They should be. I kick myself every day asking what more questions could I have asked and what we should have done.”

Wanted signs posted along Vernor St. at Chene on Detroit's east side call for the citizens arrest of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for the 'poisoning of Flint.' Photos taken on February 29, 2016. (John T. Greilick, The Detroit News)

Snyder’s legacy, future

Snyder’s legacy is still being written, and the Michigan story may someday again be worthy of taking on the road, said Truscott, a press secretary for former three-term Gov. John Engler. But the water contamination crisis has undoubtedly hurt the state’s reputation.

“It’s been very harmful,” he said. “It has become the symbol of dysfunction in state government, or government in general, when bureaucrats don’t do what they’re supposed to do and government just doesn’t work.”

With the better part of three years left in his final term, Snyder was already approaching lame-duck status. The Flint crisis has required time and energy that he could have spent pursuing other top priorities.

Legislators have approved $67 million in state aid for Flint, but there are signs of legislative fatigue.

The governor has struggled to win Republican support for his $715 million plan to save Detroit Public Schools from projected insolvency. Bills to overhaul the state’s energy policy have not seen any floor action after advancing out of a House committee, and House-approved criminal justice reforms have not seen any action in the Senate.

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, called for Snyder to resign just before the March 8 primary.

“What leverage he had is probably non-existent,” Rossman said. “I can’t even begin to compare it to any other sitting governor. You want a strong relationship with the quadrant leaders, especially of your own party, and you want the respect of the other party. It doesn’t sound like he’s got any of that.”

Truscott disagreed, suggesting Snyder still can pursue his agenda in Lansing despite the political implications of the Flint crisis.

“It certainly has cast a shadow over everything, but in terms of getting things done, the budget is still moving and I think the important issues of the day are still being dealt with,” he said.

Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, has acknowledged that House Republicans would rather spend time on their own state action plan but recognize the importance of addressing Flint and Detroit schools.

Former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Republican from Monroe who occasionally butted heads with Snyder behind closed doors before his term ended last year, argues the governor still commands respect in Lansing.

He called Snyder “one of the best problem solvers” he’s ever seen.

“He’s still got the power of the veto pen, he’s still got a lot of people that support the work he’s done,” Richardville said. “The one thing that would get in his way is this is going to take up a lot of time by not just him, but his staff, trying to solve these (Flint) problems.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.