Governor-elect Rick Snyder spent the evening of November 2 celebrating his victory with his wife, Sue, their three children, and supporters at a downtown Detroit hotel ballroom. The next morning, he headed to Lansing to start a crash course on his new career, meeting with Jennifer Granholm about the transfer of power.
In his campaign, the Ann Arbor venture capitalist promised to “reinvent Michigan” and return the state he loves to prosperity. To do that, Snyder, fifty-two, needs to make every day count.
“One thing I really want to bring [to Lansing] is a sense of urgency, a sense of crisis,” he told the Observer in a December phone interview. “We’ve been in crisis for so long we don’t act like it’s a crisis.”
Snyder has counted, and he’ll have 182 days from January 1, when he’s inaugurated, to July 1, when the legislature traditionally starts its summer break. “We’re well positioned to hit the ground running,” he says. “We’re going to be in sprint mode. We can do incredible things in this time period.”
As a teenager in Battle Creek, Snyder planned a three-stage career: the first in business, the second in public service, and the third in teaching. Stage two begins this month, when he takes office as Michigan’s forty-eighth governor. Those first 182 days in office may determine the success of his leap from business to politics.
As Newsweek pointed out last February, it’s not an easy transition. For every Mike Bloomberg, the financial publisher turned three-term mayor of New York City, there’s a Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO who served a single unhappy term as New Jersey governor before losing a re-election bid in 2008. “I don’t think candidates [with business backgrounds] get the scale and scope of what governing is,” Corzine told Newsweek. “You don’t have the flexibility you imagined.”
Snyder is alert to the hazards, and he’s enlisted a variety of talent in his crash course as he prepares to become the state’s highest elected official. He’s consulted with Republican predecessors John Engler and Bill Milliken, and spoken with former Democratic governor James Blanchard. To prepare for the push ahead, he’s been to governor’s school with the National Governors Association and has met separately with the Michigan legislature’s Democratic and Republican caucuses. And “he’s surrounding himself with people with … a lot of know-how” when it comes to state politics, says outgoing state representative Pam Byrnes, including Andy Dillon, the Democratic speaker of the house, as treasurer, and longtime lobbyist Dennis Muchmore as chief of staff. Former state senate Republican leader and gubernatorial candidate Dick Posthumus has signed on as senior adviser.
Byrnes agrees that Snyder will need to sprint. “He’s going to have his hands full just keeping the government running and budgeting,” she points out. If he’s also to win bipartisan support on his economic and other initiatives, she says, “he’s going to have to do things quickly.” The chance to make major changes will end, Byrnes warns, as soon as legislators stop thinking about the state as a whole and start worrying about what works for their district, the interest groups that supported them, and their own re-election campaigns.
But his business experience was an asset in Snyder’s campaign, and it could be one in Lansing
as well. “Particularly in a depressed state like Michigan, which has been through the wringer in recent years, having someone come from outside of politics, who demonstrated expertise in creating jobs and improving the economy—that is arguably a considerable advantage,” says Barbara Kellerman, a Harvard University lecturer on public leadership in the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Snyder built his fortune as second-in-command at Gateway Computers during its period of rapid growth in the 1990s. He briefly returned as interim CEO in 2004, when Gateway and other domestic PC makers were being pummeled by Asian competitors—a tough experience, but one that may serve Michigan’s new governor well. “He’s going to be in a circumstance that has a lot of bad news,” says MSU political science prof Matt Grossman. “He’ll be hearing bad news all the time—and making the best decisions out of the four possible bad choices.”
The first doses of bad news will come as Snyder and his team address Michigan’s budget, a byzantine $8 billion document that has already been pared and cut dramatically in the last decade. “We’re facing probably a $1.5 billion budget deficit,” Grossman says. “So in February he’s going to have to produce a budget with $1.5 billion [in] cuts. … Right away he makes a lot of people mad as he cuts things that some people want funded.”
“It will be a difficult experience,” Snyder agrees. “We do have a large deficit.” He’s warned that the state’s workers can expect some “shared pain” and cuts to their compensation. Yet he hopes to get his first budget “wrapped up” in a couple of months—not let it drag on and create problems and even a near shutdown of state government as it has in the past.
The budget is huge, but at least the governor has some control over it. The state’s economy in general is an even bigger problem, and since Snyder has said repeatedly that he does not believe the government should provide incentives to any one sector—as it did with film industry tax rebates and incentives—he will have to be creative in helping Detroit and other regions out of a huge economic hole.
“It’s a very, very difficult job in Lansing,” says outgoing state senator Liz Brater. “We’ve been in a prolonged economic crisis.” Brater hopes Snyder will succeed as a moderate Republican in the mold of Bill Milliken—and she hopes he can find ways to reinvest in the state, its transportation needs, and more.
Snyder says his number-one priority is “jobs—the need for more and better jobs in the state.” He’ll work to achieve that through business tax reform, an overhaul of the state’s economic development processes, and more. He declines to provide specifics of his legislative initiatives or agenda, saying he’s still putting them together and hopes to work first with his “partners” in the state house and senate.
“He likes to be able to fix and solve problems—and this one is huge,” says Aaron Dworkin, president of the Sphinx Organization, which encourages minority musicians to get into classical music. Snyder served on Sphinx’s board for three years and was the nonprofit’s treasurer. “He is a numbers guy,” says Dworkin, bringing “spreadsheets and tracking processes” that allowed Sphinx staff to delve into five-year financial trends and more.
Snyder already has successes to show for his leap into politics. He won August’s Republican primary against two better-known opponents, then crushed Democrat Virg Bernero in November. He’s done so with strong support from independents and even many Democrats, including some who funded his campaign and others who will be working with him as he takes the reins of government.
Now, with stage two of his life plan unfolding, he plans to place his personal investments in a blind trust and focus solely on politics. But he won’t be moving to Lansing—with his youngest child, Kelsey, still in high school at Greenhills, he says he’s “anchored” to Ann Arbor. Rather than relocate, he plans to commute back and forth to Lansing almost daily. “It’s an hour. It’s not an outrageous amount of time,” he says. And, thanks to the Michigan State Police, he won’t be driving himself: “I have a cell phone, an iPad, and a computer equipped with Wi-Fi, and a good driver,” Snyder says. “I can get a lot of work done.”