|Michigan’s G.O.P. Governor Defies Easy Labels |
By MONICA DAVEY
New York Times
August 18, 2012
DETROIT — In this political age of ideological purity, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan is an enigma.
Mr. Snyder, a Republican business executive who took office last year after a wave of G.O.P. statehouse victories, has told his Republican-dominated Legislature that a right-to-work measure is not on his agenda. The issue, he says, is too divisive.
And as some lawmakers made it clear that they intended to take their time considering their options on the national health care law, Mr. Snyder said Michigan needed to move swiftly to set up a health insurance exchange.
Then, last month, to the astonishment of Republicans who had sponsored some voting measures, Mr. Snyder vetoed several of them, including one that called for requiring photo identification to get an absentee ballot.
Mr. Snyder, who never sought elective office before he ran for governor with the unlikely slogan “One Tough Nerd,” says he is unambiguously a Republican, and it is a description with which many Michigan Democrats strenuously (and unhappily) concur. Yet Mr. Snyder, a former accountant who has single-mindedly focused on Michigan’s economic woes, also studiously steers clear of public party-line battles and avoids the sort of language that riles up some Republican crowds. And, in a state that Mitt Romney hopes to make a battleground, he has even sidestepped opportunities to criticize President Obama.
“I’m a proud Republican — there’s no issue with that at all, so why can’t I be a proud Republican and just try to solve problems?” Mr. Snyder, who turns 54 on Sunday, said in an interview.
“I feel a lot of this is just common sense,” he went on. “If you dropped all the rhetoric, all the fighting, in a lot of ways people could come up with solutions they could all agree on.”
Mr. Snyder likes to call his approach “relentless positive action,” a term that prompts eye rolls from some Michigan politicians for its earnest, self-help-book sound and for his frequent use of it. The nonideological tack has kept him outside the brightest spotlight, making him a quieter, plainer counterpart to firebrands like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin or Gov. Paul R. LePage of Maine, who arrived in the same Republican wave.
Unsettled is whether Mr. Snyder’s method can work with a national partisan divide that seems to grow deeper by the instant.
Republicans and business leaders here widely praise Mr. Snyder, crediting him with balancing the state’s once-troubled budget, dumping a state business tax and presiding over an employment rebound in a state that not long ago had the highest jobless rate in the nation.
“He’s done an amazing job,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company. “Rick doesn’t get bogged down in partisan stuff.”
Mr. Snyder got favorable ratings from 47 percent of voters — including about three-quarters of Republicans, almost a quarter of Democrats and about half of independents — in a statewide survey by EPIC-MRA in July. Mr. Snyder’s favorable number was similar to Mr. Obama’s.
“This governor has taken ahold of a state that was at the bottom of the heap,” said State Senator Darwin L. Booher, a Republican who praised Mr. Snyder’s leadership despite having sponsored one of the voting bills Mr. Snyder rejected (and learning of the veto, he said, only an hour or two before it was issued). “Sometimes it’s gotten him in trouble that he doesn’t look at things politically, but it’s refreshing.”
Democratic leaders dismiss Mr. Snyder’s style as just a new political pose. His talk of inclusiveness and civility, in the view of Mark Brewer, the Democratic state party chairman, has masked one of the most conservative agendas of any Michigan governor since the 1940s.
They say he has all but ignored Democrats, who hold minorities in the Legislature, and has been mostly in lock step with Republicans. He has vetoed only six bills, as well as lines from 14 others. Among provisions he has approved: cutting education spending, taxing public workers’ pensions, requiring more public union employees to pay more for health care, barring university graduate research assistants from forming unions, and permitting labor contracts to be tossed out in the most financially troubled cities.
“This is no different than what you see in Wisconsin, except that Governor Walker kicked down the front door and Governor Snyder is sneaking things in the back,” said Gretchen Whitmer, the Senate Democratic leader, who added that appearing to rise above partisan fighting might be far harder if Mr. Snyder’s party had not won dominance in both legislative chambers and other statewide offices. “When you’ve got absolute control, absolute power, you can afford to be the magnanimous nice guy,” she said.
Outside of Lansing, the state capital, Mr. Snyder’s stances have alienated some people and puzzled others. Randy Bishop, a Tea Party organizer, mocks Mr. Snyder’s Republican affiliation by calling him “RINO Rick,” a derogatory acronym for Republican in Name Only.
Even on matters where he appeared to buck traditional Republican stances, Mr. Snyder has been hard to lump in with others. While he has pressed to move quickly on a health insurance exchange, he says he needs more time to analyze whether Michigan should expand Medicaid under the Obama administration’s health care law. While he vetoed identification-related voting provisions, he said he did so not on some philosophical basis but because of his concern that some particulars of the bills might have confused voters. And while he has said he prefers that no right-to-work legislation arrives on his desk, he has not said he would veto it.
In 2010, Mr. Snyder shocked many by emerging from a broad field of far better-known Republicans, including Mike Cox, then the state attorney general, and Pete Hoekstra, then a congressman, in a primary race before easily winning in the general election. One of many businessmen-turned-candidates around the country that year, Mr. Snyder, a former chairman of the Gateway computer company and a venture capitalist with law and business degrees, spent about $6 million of his own money on the campaign. The governor, who almost never wears a tie, returned all but $1 of his salary in his first year in office.
In a state where Republican organizers are desperately trying to excite their voters in hopes of winning the presidential race in the state for the first time since 1988, Mr. Snyder is an unexpected, sometimes awkward ingredient. Just before the Republican primary in Michigan in February, Mr. Snyder was asked in an interview whether Mr. Obama ought to be given credit for the state’s economic improvements. “I don’t worry about blame or credit,” he said. “It’s more about solving the problem.”
Bobby Schostak, the Republican state party chairman, acknowledged that Mr. Snyder might “take a different approach,” but said he diligently joined in party events.
“His red meat is talking about cutting costs and expenses, about the state’s business economy and fiscal issues,” Mr. Schostak said. “Is he going to go pound on Congress or pound on Obama? That’s not his style.”
Mr. Snyder has his own tests ahead. Labor leaders have pushed for a ballot question in November to seal collective bargaining rights in the State Constitution, threatening divisions over the very issue that Mr. Snyder had hoped to avoid. Another group is challenging efforts for a new bridge to Canada, a controversial proposal that Mr. Snyder advanced on his own after legislators did not. And another group wants to undo a law granting broad powers to shore up financially troubled cities, a measure that underpins a consent deal the Snyder administration reached for state oversight of struggling Detroit.
For his part, Mr. Snyder seems unworried. He says Michigan residents — customers, as he calls them — seem fine with his way of going along.
“Other politicians, a lot of them don’t know what to make of it,” he said.
“That doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me,” he said, “because, again, my customers appreciate it.”