In late January 2015, Michigan governor Rick Snyder sent an email to several aides with a list of priorities he wanted his administration to tackle in the forthcoming year.
“At least we can’t be accused of slowing down in term two,” the governor wrote. “Dog years are alive and well!” The phrase highlighted the Republican’s insistence on reinventing the way Michigan’s government functioned at an expeditious pace.
What Snyder didn’t realize was that a priority situated far down the list – “36. Flint water system” – would eventually supplant the rest and consume the remaining months of his tenure. Following his pronouncement in October that Flint, Michigan’s water supply had been contaminated to an extent far worse than he initially understood, Snyder, who ascended into office in 2010 by portraying himself as a pragmatic businessman and data nerd, has been mired in a battle for political survival that he likely never would have imagined.
For the 57-year-old former venture capitalist, the shift in his political outlook has been dramatic: a year ago, Snyder was crisscrossing the country and meeting with political donors for a possible 2016 presidential run . In recent months, he has been grilled by a congressional panel for his administration’s delayed response to addressing Flint’s water contamination, while his approval rating has plummeted. A poll released last month found 75% of voters believed Snyder hadn’t handled the situation in Flint well, and 41% believed he should resign – up from 29% in January.
The governor has been targeted on several fronts in recent days, as the outrage among voters over his handling of Flint and the dire financial situation in Detroit public schools has culminated in a pair of wide-ranging lawsuits filed this week . Snyder is term-limited and cannot run for re-election in 2018, but a group led by a vocal Detroit pastor is seeking to end his time in office sooner: an ongoing petition drive to ask voters in a statewide referendum this November to recall the governor has collected an estimated 108,000 signatures since canvassers began their effort on Easter Sunday.
“He’s getting the boot,” said Anita Brown, 62, a Detroit native who volunteered with a steady stream of canvassers getting trained on Friday. “Put my name in big, blue writing: he’s out. He’s out of there.”
The recall effort must clear several substantial hurdles to have its effort certified for the November general election. As a result of a law signed by Snyder in 2012, the period in which signatures could be collected was shortened from 90 days to 60 days. In that timeframe, petitioners need to gather nearly 790,000 valid signatures. The Reverend David Alexander Bullock, who is leading the recall drive, said his goal was to collect at least 900,000.
“I haven’t seen this kind of momentum in a long time,” said Bullock.
“The energy and animus, at least a week out, is very encouraging,” he added. “I think we ought to massage this energy and allow it to continue to grow. I think we got a great shot.”
Under state law , if a recall of Snyder was successful the remainder of his term would be served by Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Brian Calley.
Tens of thousands of emails released by Snyder’s office show his administration for months downplayed complaints and concerns about Flint’s water, even as third-party researchers found dangerously high levels of lead at households across the Rust Belt city. The emails also showed his top aides were clued into serious problems with Flint’s water months before the state conceded it misunderstood the enormity of the situation.
In October 2014, for example, Snyder’s top legal counsel, Michael Gadola, told the governor’s chief of staff in an email that Flint should reconnect with its former water supplier, the city of Detroit. Gadola said the use of Flint’s river as a water supply was “downright scary” and added: “They should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”
It’s unclear if Gadola’s suggestion was relayed to Snyder, who has said he wasn’t debriefed on the extent of Flint’s water problems until late September. The governor has repeatedly apologized for his role in the situation, and a taskforce he appointed found in a lengthy report issued last month that his administration bore primary responsibility for the catastrophe. A federal racketeering lawsuit filed this week said the two-year water crisis was the result of an “intentional scheme” crafted by state officials and the governor to balance the city’s budget .
Both Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have called for Snyder to resign, echoing similar remarks from top legislators in Michigan. Snyder has nonetheless rebuffed demands to step down.
“The governor appreciates that citizens have the right to call elected officials. However, his focus is on helping the people of Flint recover from the water crisis and helping the entire city move forward,” said spokesman Ari Adler.
Snyder’s critics have pointed to his business-minded governance style as the source of the ongoing crisis. In a statement issued last month, state representative Tim Greimel, the Michigan house minority leader, said he was moved to call for Snyder’s resignation because the governor had created a culture that prioritized “public relations positioning” and “pass the buck” politics.
“It is a culture so pervasive that when scientists and Flint residents sounded the alarm, they were mocked, dismissed and subjected to public relations spin rather than being listened to,” Greimel said. “It is a culture so pervasive that for months, the problem was allowed to continue, even to the point of ignoring scientific evidence that the crisis had potentially grown to a fatal level.”
The backlash against Snyder has continued to brew elsewhere, as Flint is not the only prevailing debacle he is trying to address. The public school system in Detroit was slated to run out of cash this week, but Snyder approved $50m in emergency funding to keep the school doors open until the end of the year. The measure is a stopgap for the governor’s campaign to convince the Republican-led legislature to pass a $700m plan that intends to address the district’s massive debt load.
In an effort to highlight the dilapidated conditions of school buildings across the city, which emerged in late 2014 from a municipal bankruptcy pursued at the behest of Snyder, teachers have staged a series of so-called “sickouts” . The success of Detroit’s school system is viewed as integral to the city’s long-term outlook, and to ensure the recent boom of investment in the city’s downtown isn’t occurring in vain.
But a lawsuit filed this week said Detroit public schools’ students were experiencing “serious and permanent” damage from Snyder’s appointment of emergency managers – with expansive powers he approved upon taking office – to run the district. Since he was elected, the school system has lost nearly half its enrollment, and budget deficits have ballooned to more than $700m while the district was run by a succession of emergency managers. Darnell Earley, the Snyder-appointed emergency manager who oversaw the city of Flint during the water source switch, was later moved by the governor to run Detroit public schools. Earley resigned in February and was replaced by the now-retired judge that oversaw Detroit’s bankruptcy case.
“Michigan’s emergency manager law and related practices were used to compromise and damage the quality of education received by [Detroit public schools] with lifelong consequences in the name of financial urgency,” the 110-page complaint, filed on Thursday, stated.
Lamar Lemmons, a member of Detroit’s elected school board, which has been rendered powerless under emergency management, said on Thursday that he and his colleagues supported the recall effort. He was unwavering when asked if the multiple ongoing state and federal investigations into Flint’s water crisis should produce criminal charges against state officials.
“We do believe some criminal action is due,” Lemmons said.
Bullock, the pastor spearheading the recall campaign, said the effort was a “referendum on Rick Snyder’s leadership”. His group circulated 15,000 petitions for signatures in the first week, he said, and the goal is to have 15,000-20,000 more out by next week.
“It is about restoring balance to the way politics has unfolded in Michigan,” he said. “There has been no real democratic rights in this state. People have not really had a chance to express their approval in a way that’s been meaningful. I think the recall effort is the only legitimate way to do that, and I think that’s why we’re seeing this kind of support.”
He added: “And it’s not Democrat or Republican, it’s not black or white. It’s not even rich or poor. It’s really … just seeing citizen consensus that Rick Snyder’s got to go.”