Nerdy CEO-turned-governor faces the Detroit challenge

LANSING, Michigan Tue Feb 19, 2013 6:10pm EST

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder holds a news conference to talk about why he signed into law, earlier in the day, right-to-work laws in Lansing, Michigan December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder holds a news conference to talk about why he signed into law, earlier in the day, right-to-work laws in Lansing, Michigan December 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

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LANSING, Michigan (Reuters) - In today's partisan environment, many U.S. politicians tend to hew close to their base and not worry about angering their opponents, but Michigan Governor Rick Snyder possesses a rare talent for raising hackles on both sides.

In early December, the Republican governor angered the state's powerful labor unions by signing so-called "right-to-work" legislation allowing workers to opt out of union membership. Then earlier this month, Snyder annoyed Michigan's small-government conservatives with a plan to expand Medicaid and raise the gas tax for road repairs.

Snyder, 54, merely smiles when asked about this knack.

"I'm here to deliver results to my customers," Snyder said in a recent interview. "My customers are the citizens of Michigan."

"That's the simple way I look at it, it's about giving great customer service."

Now he has in his hands the fate of 700,000 customers - the residents of Detroit. A Snyder-appointed review panel said on Tuesday the city is in financial crisis and needs outside help, leaving it to the governor to decide if he will name an emergency manager to take over its finances.

"There is very limited political upside to appointing an emergency manager," said University of Michigan political scientist Michael Traugott. "But I think Snyder is prepared to do it."

LONG-TERM VISION

A CEO-turned-politician, Snyder does not easily fit into an ideological slot. Many of those who know him describe a long-term thinker who approaches politics through the eyes of a businessman and does not avoid tough decisions.

Vic Strecher recalled that when Snyder's venture capital firm invested $2.5 million in 1998 for 30 percent of his fledgling online healthcare coaching business HealthMedia Inc (now owned by Johnson & Johnson), Snyder took a hands-off approach, telling Strecher to get on and run the firm.

When "dotcom turned to dotbomb" in 2000, Strecher said Snyder was "always a steady force" with a vision for his firm.

"He said we needed to stay focused on the long-term vision of getting customers good value," he said.

For Snyder's foes on the left such as United Auto Workers president Bob King, the governor has pursued a right-wing agenda after running as a moderate in 2010. King says his goal in 2014 is to prevent Snyder from gaining a second term.

"He told people he was a moderate and he has done the exact opposite, passing some of the most extreme right-wing legislation," King said. "We'll back a candidate (in 2014) who is for 100 percent of the people, not just the top 1 percent."

Conservatives have opposed Snyder for taxing pensioners and supporting a health exchange for Michigan that is part of Democratic President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms. But they like the fact he has fixed the state's budget mess.

Long-time conservative operative Jack Hoogendyk says Snyder is a "bit of an enigma."

"He does a lot of things true conservatives support and a lot of things conservatives disagree with," he said. "But I think he views the state's problems through the lens of a businessman and has taken a level-headed approach to running Michigan Inc."

'ONE TOUGH NERD'

When Snyder, formerly CEO of venture capital firm Ardesta and one-time executive at computer company Gateway, decided to run for governor in the 2010 election, he went into the primaries as a political unknown considered the most moderate Republican in a crowded field of five.

Joe Lehman, president of conservative, free-market Michigan think-tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, recalls Snyder appearing at one of the group's regular breakfast meetings in 2009 ahead of the gubernatorial race. Snyder "was the only politician ever to stick to our rule that they not give a speech."

"I thought there's no way this guy is ever going to be governor," Lehman said.

Snyder's campaign, much of it self-funded, included a 2010 Super Bowl ad in Michigan describing him as "One Tough Nerd" who could fix Michigan's fiscal mess.

The nerd in Snyder was on display February 7 in Lansing as he fielded questions from reporters about his new proposed budget. With no papers in front of him, he quoted figures from the budget and the justification for them with ease.

Snyder says his decisions are based on the simple question of what is best for Michigan, not partisan politics.

Medicaid expansion, he says, will save the state money because it will provide primary care to poorer Michiganders rather than force them into expensive emergency care that drives premiums up for everyone else.

While ordinary families get that, "you go here," he says pointing out the window of his office at the state capitol "and it's this huge controversy."

"Doesn't that show the political culture's kind of messed up?"

On the issue of Detroit, Snyder reiterates a statement from his 2010 campaign that "Detroit needs to be a great city."

He highlights recent transportation investments in the city and the need for a new bridge to boost trade and create jobs.

"So let's get the city government's finances fixed," he said. "And we are going to get them fixed."

How he handles Detroit's future could be a factor in his likely bid for re-election. And he has to contend with falling approval ratings in the wake of the "right-to-work" bill.

But when it comes to running for a second term, Snyder isn't so enigmatic.

"I haven't formally announced," he said. "But I've got more work I'd like to do."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Claudia Parsons)

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