The governor who poisoned Flint: The GOP's Rick Snyder thought he might be president. Not so fast...

Snyder promised Michigan transparence and business-style leadership. He delivered usual GOP bumbling incompetence

Published April 2, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

Rick Snyder   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Rick Snyder (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

When Rick Snyder took the reins from Jennifer Granholm on Jan. 1, 2011, there was a certain smugness hanging in Michigan’s raw winter air.

The changing of the guard had been fairly pleasant –– the Republican and Democrat had even held a (mundane) joint press conference on economic development. That stood in sharp contrast to the bitterly partisan transition from Jim Blanchard to the man who defeated him in 1990, John Engler, and then from Engler to Granholm 12 years later.

As the state’s first female governor, Granholm had started her tenure in 2002 with some fanfare –– and had even been buzzed about as a presidential candidate (despite being born in Vancouver, Canada). But by the time her second term stumbled to a close, Granholm was badly bruised from leading the state for the better part of a decade-long recession and the near-collapse of the domestic auto industry. Michigan’s state government had shut down not once, but twice, on her watch. She wanted her legacy to be (finally) diversifying the state’s economy, as she cheered for green jobs, but everyone seemed to know it was too little, too late.

It was little secret that Granholm harbored national ambitions, but she’d bet on the wrong horse in the 2008 Democratic primary –– Hillary Clinton. After Barack Obama was elected, Granholm’s name was floated for Labor, Education and Energy secretary, as well as the Supreme Court. But the Michigan governor was doomed to always be the bridesmaid, something spiteful Republicans never let her forget.

So by the time Snyder’s inauguration rolled around, Granholm seemed somewhat chastened, knowing that her unpopularity had helped pad the Republican’s 19-point margin. The only small comfort was that the Democratic nominee wasn’t her hand-picked successor (Lt. Gov. John Cherry had gracefully bowed out in early 2010). The sacrificial lamb was Virg Bernero, who Fox News had anointed as “America’s Angriest Mayor” for his defense of the auto bailout, but his shouty schtick wore thin rather fast. In other words, he was nobody’s first choice.

Snyder, who was still considered the heir to saintly moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken, didn’t make any rash moves with his team, tapping experienced insiders like former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus (who Granholm dispatched in ‘02).

The former Gateway CEO had promised us “Michigan 3.0” thanks to his “Tough Nerd” CPA style, running on an innocuous platform of platitudes about government transparency and competency.

But even though partisan chest-beating isn’t his style, Snyder clearly regarded Granholm as a failed governor –– a poor manager who barely understood economic policy and gave us a Byzantine corporate tax structure (in reality, that had long been the case in Michigan and its latest iteration was a bipartisan effort).

It really wasn’t personal. That’s just how Snyder views most people in public service (as even many Republicans who have worked with him will privately admit).

In the world according to Richard Dale Snyder, everyone should have spent more time in the private sector (like him) learning how to get things done.

Working in ‘Dog Years’

Naturally, Snyder had little patience for the lumbering speed of government, vowing to work in “dog years.”

Only later would we come to realize just how much disdain our governor had for the entire concept of government –– crystallized in his congressional testimony on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, when he brazenly blamed “government bureaucrats” for the Flint water crisis. Then a few days later, Snyder bragged to a friendly audience of business executives, “I hope they appreciate the fact I took responsibility for some of the people that worked for me, the tragic mistakes they made, and I’m focused on fixing the problem.”

I’m sure the people of Flint, who still don’t have safe drinking water, were deeply comforted by the governor’s humble response.

Ah, but I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Back to 2011, when Snyder –– and Michigan power-brokers –– had such high hopes of turning the Rust Belt state around.

Michiganders gave him the benefit of the doubt as he championed an aggressive agenda –– a $1.7 billion corporate tax cut (paid for mostly by a $1.4 million tax hike on individual ratepayers), education reform that’s been a boon to charter schools and, of course, the Emergency Manager law everyone now knows about because of Flint.

His governorship hummed along, as he shepherded Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in history –– which was supposed to be his ultimate legacy. In 2012, Snyder took some heat for signing Right to Work and a new EM bill just weeks after voters spurned the first one via referendum. But he led a charmed political life, as Michigan’s unemployment rate kept falling and the auto industry climbed back from nadir.

A few scandals burbled up over his secretive “Skunk Works” education reform group and Aramark, the private company the state hired for prison food service, which was dumped after one of its employees was embroiled in a murder-for-hire plot.

But Snyder was the Teflon guv. In contrast to other politicians –– who most journalists and insiders presume to be craven and almost corrupt –– everyone assumed the best of Snyder, truly taking his message of fostering Michigan’s “comeback” to heart. Even the liberal Detroit Free Press editorial board endorsed him –– twice.

In 2014, he won re-election by a far closer margin than he should have, given such a stellar GOP year. But a win’s a win, and the guv’s future looked bright. Michigan’s leading conservative columnist, the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley, breathlessly announced Snyder would make a fine commander-in-chief. Most pundits weren’t quite so taken with our rambling governor, whose pitch is less-than-presidential and rather reminiscent of “Kermit the Frog.” But a vice presidential slot wasn’t out of the question, and I believed Snyder was an ideal fit for Secretary of Commerce in a potential GOP administration.

He did his best to stoke speculation last spring, with allies setting up a new fund –– ironically named “Making Michigan Accountable” –– so he could travel around the country to “tell Michigan’s story” (wink). But Snyder, always awkward at political gamesmanship, declared after a few weeks that he wouldn’t run for the White House.

That coincided with the biggest failure of his governorship, thus far: a $2 billion tax hike for roads that 80 percent of voters rejected in May 2015 –– the biggest defeat of any ballot initiative in 50 years. Though Snyder’s office ran shotgun on the campaign, editorial boards curiously gave him a pass on the humiliating loss. Hardheaded tea party Republicans or ignorant voters were clearly the problem, not the governor, who was just trying to do the right thing.

It goes without saying that Jennifer Granholm wouldn’t have been so fortunate, however, if her tax hike had gone down in flames. There would have been scores of screeds about her lack of leadership and political ineptitude, including from me. Snyder’s predecessor, of course, had the bad luck to preside over Michigan during a deep recession, when everyone’s nerves were frayed and the governor becomes a fat target. Granholm also only had limited government experience, serving as attorney general for just four years, and was notoriously clumsy in dealing with an oft-hostile legislature.

Of course, Snyder had zero government experience, but was automatically deemed competent because of his business acumen (even though Gateway wasn’t exactly a smashing capitalist success). He was also blessed with big Republican majorities for his entire tenure, which means he’d have to actively try not to get his agenda into law.

But let’s not mince words here. Granholm was the state’s first female governor and there was a degree of underlying sexism. Is it a coincidence that the Republican field to replace her consisted of five conservative white guys vowing to restore order and competence to Michigan? Probably as much as it is that after eight years of our first African-American president, the 2016 GOP front-runner is boorish nativist Donald Trump.

Flint Water Crisis Explodes

Second terms are seldom happy ones for term-limited politicians. Granholm discovered that in 2007, as she hunkered down in a near year-long standoff with the legislature, which ultimately culminated in the first government shutdown of her tenure.

Little did Snyder know that his fifth year would also become a trial by fire, bleeding well into 2016. Arrogance has a way of catching up to politicians.

As most reporters were distracted with an irresistible sex scandal involving two religious-right Republican lawmakers in the summer of 2015, a major Michigan city was being poisoned. Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers had approved using the Flint River as a temporary water source to save money. Residents quickly knew something was very wrong –– the water looked, smelled and tasted like something fished out of a toilet. Parents knew their babies and toddlers were getting sick from it. The state secretly carted in water for its employees in Flint. Even General Motors stopped using the water at its engine plant because it was corroding parts.

But the spokesman for the state environmental office famously told Flint residents to “relax” about their water’s safety. Still, those annoying citizens and a few nosy reporters kept yammering about it, prompting the flack to sigh in an email to a colleague, “Apparently, it’s going to be a thing now.” It was the usual suspects, however –– African-American pastors, residents already riled up over the EM law, and mostly “unfriendly” media types from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and public radio.

The strategy was to minimize, ignore and spin –– which, disturbingly, worked for awhile. But after independent testing came out from both Virginia Tech University and Flint’s Hurley Hospital, the water crisis began making international headlines. Journalists didn’t hide the fact that they were utterly horrified that this could happen in a major American city in the 21st century.

So how much did Rick Snyder know about this “thing” –– e.g. lead and legionella contaminating Flint’s water? Like Sgt. Schultz, Snyder claims he knew nothing until October 2015, although the report from his appointed task force casts some doubt on that assertion.

What we do know is that Snyder’s top aides –– his lawyers, chief of staff and “transformation manager” (named in true corporate buzzword fashion) –– as well as two department heads, were aware of serious problems as early as October 2014. If they chose to keep the governor in the dark, that means one of two things: They regarded him as completely ineffective or they went to almost superhuman lengths to shield him from scandal. Neither is a good look, but it’s better than Snyder knowing Flint was poisoned earlier and then lying repeatedly about it. That’s something for the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and the state attorney general to determine in their investigations.

When the scandal exploded, Snyder and the state Republican Party made the crass calculation that the best defense is a good offense. They blithely blamed Obama for everything, bolstered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s errors. Various ideological allies pimped stories in right-wing media that Democrats elected in the 40-percent African-American city were really to blame (you know how those people run things into the ground, wink).

And Republicans worked the national media on the angle that Democrats were shamelessly “politicizing” the crisis (especially those who are threats –– likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, the early favorite to be Michigan’s next governor).

That worked for awhile until Snyder’s handpicked task force released its 116-page report in late March. The panel, which included Snyder’s former state chief medical officer and a Republican ex-Senate majority leader, laid the blame squarely on Flint’s four EMs for the biggest decision: switching to Flint River water. And yes, this was vitally important to suss out –– instead of lazily just bleating that “government at all levels” failed –– if the goal is to ensure that this health catastrophe doesn’t happen again. And let’s not forget that various law enforcement agencies are in the midst of determining criminal culpability.

Running Government Like a Business

Everyone wants to know how the Flint water crisis could happen. Some days, it still feels surreal to those of us in Michigan. Many folks outside the Mitten have mused that Rick Snyder doesn’t appear to be a heartless, right-wing villain (say, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Gov. Rick Scott). Wasn’t Snyder supposed to be some nice, nerdy moderate?

Here’s how I see it, based on the evidence known right now. No, Snyder and his administration didn’t purposely poison an entire city. But they absolutely put balance sheets before people in Flint. This is their governing philosophy across the board –– you can see it in their decision to privatize staff at a veterans home, where sickening cases of abuse and neglect have recently been uncovered. You can see it in their almost-exclusive obsession with the finances of Detroit Public Schools, not the rats, mold and broken heating systems that make it impossible for kids to learn.

Snyder believes, as many Republicans do, that government should be run as a business. This is why he pushed to give state-appointed emergency managers near-dictatorial powers, casting aside duly elected officials (and union contracts). It’s a lot easier to run things when you’re not accountable to the people. There’s a reason why Snyder is fond of robotically referring to citizens as “customers.”

And yes, some customers are more important than others in Rick Snyder’s Michigan. CEOs of big corporations come way before angry mothers in Flint. That’s the truth, however unpleasant. It’s not a coincidence that child poverty has skyrocketed all across Michigan –– not just Detroit and Flint –– while Snyder has been the state CEO. And consider what his former economic development chief, Doug Rothwell, told Crain’s Detroit Business about the “image problem” the Flint water crisis has created: “We worked so hard to have Detroit not be a negative issue. Now, Flint puts a damper on it.”

Yes, it’s such a shame that poisoned children are ruining the governor’s carefully crafted “Michigan’s comeback” and “Pure Michigan” narratives.

So it’s not surprising that even today, Snyder has steadfastly refused to meet with Flint residents. An old computer guy, he just wants to know that the malfunction is being fixed. He doesn’t want to have to look people in the eye. And no, this isn’t mere social ineptitude. Job one for Rick Snyder is restoring his own reputation. That’s why he keeps effusively tweeting about moving #FlintFWD and sending out self-congratulatory press releases, like the one touting the creation of  81 jobs with the Flint recovery effort.

The people of Flint deserve so much better.

Let’s go back to Snyder’s predecessor, the much-maligned, supposedly amateurish Jennifer Granholm. So would Flint have happened on her watch? As one of her frequent critics, I can say that I honestly don’t believe it would have.

Granholm never would have enacted the draconian changes to the state’s emergency manager law that paved the way for this crisis. Her LG, longtime former legislative leader John Cherry, also hailed from Genesee County. He almost certainly would have put the kibosh on using the notoriously filthy Flint River for drinking water.

But beyond that, Granholm’s administration wasn’t obsessed with the bottom line, but rather focused on what government should be doing for people. She was a mainline Democrat, after all. Sure, various programs didn’t always meet that ideal, as is true in any large bureaucracy, especially in a once-prosperous state that used to be able to afford some government bloat. But it’s a key difference between her administration and the one that followed it.

For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Granholm’s top aides desperately trying to hide the seriousness of the crisis from both her and the public. No one likes to admit screw-ups –– especially something as dire as people being poisoned. But the Granholm administration was accustomed to dealing with big blows –– skyrocketing unemployment, the auto industry imploding, the state running out of money –– and often being blamed for things well beyond their control. It seems unlikely that officials would suddenly engage in a huge cover-up, especially one that would result in more human suffering. And if Granholm had caught wind of that, heads would have rolled.

Her biggest strength is that she’s a people person, which is why she’s such a captivating campaigner. But for whatever people have said about her, there is an underlying humanity and decency. When a big Electrolux plant closed in the west Michigan hamlet of Greenville in 2006, she went to the company picnic dubbed “The Last Supper” and shook every hand. It’s striking to think about that when Rick Snyder can’t be bothered to talk to parents whose children will probably have permanent brain damage.

So it’s somewhat ironic that five years after leaving the governor’s mansion to snickers about her ghastly legacy, Granholm is poised for a second act. She’s well-positioned to be in a Democratic presidential cabinet, should Hillary Clinton be elected, or to take over as Democratic National Committee chair. Michigan Republicans still deploy Granholm’s name as a punchline, but it looks like she’ll have the last laugh.

Rick Snyder probably won’t be that lucky. He doesn’t talk about “dog years” anymore. He’s no longer known as the man who saved Detroit (new Mayor Mike Duggan has shrewdly stepped into the void, and will retroactively be remembered as such). While next-door Gov. John Kasich was winning the Ohio Republican presidential primary on March 16, Snyder was prepping to get grilled by Congress.

Snyder is now known as the governor who poisoned Flint.

It goes without saying that the water crisis will overshadow anything else Snyder tries to accomplish before his final term ends in 2018. He’s spent over $1 million on lawyers defending himself over Flint already –– and has arrogantly asked taxpayers to pay for it. It’s not out of the question that the governor will face criminal charges.

But even if he escapes that nightmare scenario, Snyder’s reputation will be permanently tarnished. He’s said he wanted his next career to be in academia –– presumably at his alma mater, the University of Michigan –– but that seems unlikely at this point. Snyder won’t leave the governorship without options, of course; he’ll have business opportunities at his disposal and already has a sizable personal fortune to fall back on.

But he may just leave the job more unpopular than his predecessor –– which would be saying something. My, how the mighty have fallen.

By Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter.

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