Flint water crisis: How the GOP governor’s brand of corporate politics set stage for disaster
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan presents himself as a bipartisan, pragmatic accountant. His self-proclaimed nickname is “One Tough Nerd”. He has no trouble upsetting Democrats and Republicans on the same day.
He talks about Michigan residents as his “customers” and tries to run the embattled state like a turnaround business. But Snyder is much more of a political animal than his rhetoric, or lack of it, would suggest.
He does not go as far as his Wisconsin neighbor Scott Walker has done, in policies concerning public sector workers, unions , gun control, gay marriage, welfare or abortion. He prefers to talk like a company manager and occasionally makes practical decisions outside party lines.
But there is no doubt Snyder is a red-blooded Republican with free-market and socially conservative stripes – and a relish for power.
The governor’s poisoned “customers” in Flint are experiencing an unexpected side-effect of Snyder’s penchant for dispatching unelected state overseers to run struggling cities with sweeping executive powers.
No one put lead in Flint’s water deliberately . But the cost-cutting imperatives and imperious manner that laid the groundwork for the crisis were typical of Snyder’s administration.
Not long after taking the governor’s chair in January 2011, as a business executive new to politics and intent on economic reform, Snyder said he did not share Walker’s hostility to union collective bargaining or anticipate a repeat of the kind of worker protests that had brought the Wisconsin capitol in Madison to a halt.
Less than two years later, in December 2012, just after Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney to keep Michigan as a blue state in the general election, furious workers descended on the state capital, Lansing , where Republicans and Snyder were enacting anti-union legislation.
Almost overnight, Michigan became a “right-to-work” state, prohibiting most obligatory union dues in the public and private sectors.
The legislation echoed blueprints circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) and was supported by the like-minded, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy , and backed by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers .
That may have come as a surprise to many in the traditionally union-heavy, industrial heartlands of the state. But although a native Michigander, Snyder, 57, hails from a place very different from Motown.
He was raised in Battle Creek , a small, predominantly white and middle-class town less than two hours from Detroit. Battle Creek voted Republican in 2012 and is unremarkable apart from being host to the corporate headquarters of Kellogg.
Snyder read Fortune magazine as a kid and had earned his bachelor, master’s and law degrees by the time he was 23. He worked as a lawyer for the accountancy giant Coopers & Lybrand, where he met his wife. He then joined a computer firm, Gateway, rising via posts in Chicago and South Dakota to run the company. He returned to Michigan in 1997 and launched his own venture capital outfit in Ann Arbor, where he still lives.
When Snyder plunged into the Michigan gubernatorial race in 2010, on the GOP ticket and without any political experience, he pledged to bring corporate efficiency, practical solutions and job creation skills to the governor’s office. He won handily.
Not long after the enacting of right to work laws in late 2012, Snyder began beefing up the state’s powers to take control of struggling cities. The elected governments of the most financially imperiled, Flint and Detroit, were overridden by state-appointed emergency executives preaching budget cuts .
Emergency managers were in charge in Flint when the city’s water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the grossly polluted local river, as a cost-saving measure.
Before the crisis in Flint took over his agenda, Snyder claimed credit for rescuing Detroit. There, he appointed an emergency manager in April 2013. When the city declared insolvency, three months later, protesters carried signs depicting Snyder as the devil. The battered city emerged from bankruptcy in November 2014.
At one point during that period, six Michigan cities were under emergency state oversight, as arguments raged over drastic cost-cutting, greater state and private-sector influences over schools and measures to weaken union contracts further and deplete public sector pensions in order to stave off collapse.
In May 2013, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) went to court, calling Snyder’s emergency managers “a threat to democracy” and noting that 50% of the state’s African American population was now governed by a state-appointed local leader. But after Detroit restructured its finances, Snyder began holding up his brand of leadership as a model.
Criticized as an oligarch by some and a technocrat by others, in national Republican circles his name began cropping up as a possible presidential contender .
He never entered the race, of course, but in April 2015 it was being publicly talked about as a certainty by some GOP enthusiasts.
It’s hard to know how he would have fared. Scott Walker fell early and John Kasich of Ohio is trailing the juggernaut of Donald Trump and his tailgater Ted Cruz.
Snyder may have had trouble explaining to primary voters and donors why he criticized the Affordable Care Act but then expanded Medicaid in Michigan. He may have faced difficulty discussing why he initially resisted calls to tighten restrictions on abortion but later did so; or refused to ease certain limits on gun sales, but later eased them after all.
All that is academic now. A Snyder candidacy could not have survived the Flint water catastrophe, which developed under his brand of corporate-culture politics while, at best, he stood by .
Whether Snyder will survive as governor remains to be seen.