Finley: Snyder’s style worked against him in Flint

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Rick Snyder says he doesn’t do politics. But politics is becoming his undoing.

The traits that made Snyder attractive as a gubernatorial candidate six years ago are working to his disadvantage in dealing with the Flint water crisis.

The proud CPA with no appetite or aptitude for politics relied too much on cold hard facts when political instincts would have served him better.

During his tenure, he has created a data-driven culture in the governor’s office, replete with metrics and dashboards to assure his agenda is moving forward and targets are being met. That approach works 90 percent of the time, perhaps more.

But some situations are better measured by gut feelings, and the climate in the governor’s office discourages red flags based on hunches and suspicions.

He wants the numbers. Bring him spreadsheets, not anecdotes.

That’s a management style that facilitates problem solving, and leads to a very expedient operation, and it’s what voters wanted when they elected a CEO as governor.

But it also creates the risk that the boss won’t hear everything he needs to know. The single-minded reliance on data leaves him vulnerable when those crunching the numbers and doing the analysis mislead him, hide information and outright lie, as happened in Flint.

When the Flint ministers came to the governor’s office with complaints of brown, smelly water last spring, a governor with sharper political skills would not have ordered more tests and reports, would not have yielded to bureaucrats who were insisting the foul stuff was safe to drink.

He would have gone to Flint. He would have shut off the water. He would have bullied the obfuscating civil servants to come clean.

But Snyder does not have the people around him who can give him that sort of advice. His true inner circle is small. Those he trusts most are the ones who were with him in the business world, and are as politically inexperienced as he is. There are political veterans on his team, but they don’t have his ear in the same way.

There’s also this: What’s said most often about Snyder is that he believes he’s the smartest guy in any room, and he usually is. But nobody knows everything. And when you think you do, it can keep you from listening.

The best example of Snyder’s political deafness is his reaction to revelations of unsafe and unsanitary conditions in some Detroit schools.

The governor should have never let Mayor Mike Duggan beat him to the schools. He should have grabbed Emergency Manager Darnell Earley by the ear and dragged him on a school tour, then announced the buildings would be made right pronto.

Duggan, who had been publicly aloof on the Detroit Public Schools restructuring, became the fixer by showing up, and now is in the driver’s seat on what the future of DPS will look like.

Snyder is also not a self-promoter. Voters used to politicians who exaggerate every success found his humility refreshing.

In his first term, his staff struggled to get him to beat the drum, to boast of his accomplishments. They worried he wasn’t getting enough credit for the state’s progress — as evidenced by his curiously low approval ratings. Snyder preferred to let the work speak for itself, confident he would be rewarded for results, just as he was in business.

That doesn’t work as well in politics, where there is an opposition heavily invested in projecting you as a failure.

He’s the rare elected official who is not always looking for the camera. So when he finally learned the water was poisoning Flint’s children with lead, his nature took him back to the numbers, instead of to the microphone.

He tried to apply his operating philosophy of relentless positive action to a situation that called for an angry public face and some old-fashioned, behind-the-scenes butt kicking.

And it blew up on him, to the point where Hillary Clinton was able to say in her New Hampshire post-primary speech that a Republican governor intentionally poisoned the children of Flint to save money, and no one challenged the veracity of the claim. That’s the national narrative.

I’m confident Snyder can fix the Flint crisis — those problem solving skills are still there, and the actions he’s taking are aggressive, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage.

But it will be harder for him to regain the reputation of a can-do governor who proved you can succeed in politics without being a political animal.

As Flint demonstrates, that takes more political skills than he’s exhibited.

Nolan Finley’s new book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.