Is Rick Snyder Michigan’s Unlikely Savior?
September 23, 2010
This WAS supposed to be the year of the Tea Party.
The year when a pitchfork-wielding mob of mad-as-hell voters rose up in protest, pushing back against the overweening excess of a supposedly socialistic federal government. And yet Michigan seems poised to elect as as its next governor a liberal republican from the People’s republic of Ann Arbor – a tech CEO with a nasal honk of a voice and a Howdy Doody smile – a political unknown who proudly calls himself a “nerd” and seems to have little interest in the pillars of the GOP establishment. (The The mad-as-hell guy is Snyder’s opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.) Who is Rick Snyder? How did he get here? Is he a man of the moment, or charmingly out of sync? And does he stand a chance of pulling Michigan out of its decades-long decline?
Michigan voters are frustrated. They’re tired.
They’re anxious. They’re fed up — with a recession that never seems to end, a budget perpetually out of balance and a state government that never seems to get anything done.
The polling so far has Snyder up by double-digit margins over Bernero. Democrats are attacking Snyder for outsourcing American jobs while he was at the computer company Gateway Inc. This is only sort of true: The offshoring happened while Snyder was no longer CEO but still on the board of directors, when he claims he couldn’t do anything about it.
The outsourcing charge is an attack that worked for Democrats last time, against 2006 Republican nominee and former Amway CEO Dick DeVos. But analysts don’t think it will be enough for Bernero to overcome Snyder’s many advantages.
Okemos-based Democratic consultant Robert Kolt says Democrats know it. “I’ve known Virg for years, and I like him. He’s a nice guy,” Kolt tells me. “But I’m not going to give him any money, because I think he’s going to lose. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just the sacrificial lamb for the party this year.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, rates Snyder “not just a favorite, but a heavy favorite.” He adds, “You never know what’s going to happen in a campaign. Snyder is a first-time candidate, and they sometimes make serious mistakes. But if he can control the gaffes, this is not even close.”
State Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democrat from the Ann Arbor area who supported Bernero in the primary, says Washtenaw County is “a little more up for grabs” than usual because it’s Snyder’s home: “People like to vote for a favorite son.” She thinks the Democrats can win, but acknowledges they face an uphill battle.
“Rick Snyder is an unknown, and he doesn’t know state government,” Smith tells me. “According to the pundits, voters prefer that.”
So what do voters know about Rick Snyder? Mostly, they know about a certain famous
Amid the stupid, salacious and intermittently clever Super Bowl ads last February, here it was. It opened with deep-voiced narration that snidely derided “career politicians” over photos of disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“We’ve tried happy talk,” the narrator intoned. “And we’re 50th out of 50 — dead last.” Cue sepia-toned images of shuttered factories.
The next shot is of an ornately decorated living room — patterned wallpaper, floor lamps, a china hutch. A silver-haired white man in black slacks and an open-necked blue shirt sits in an armchair, legs uncrossed, hands on his thighs. “We need a nerd,” he chirps.
At the time this, Rick Snyder’s first campaign ad, aired, less than 20 percent of Republican primary voters had heard of him and only 3 percent supported his candidacy, according to polls. He needed to make an impression. But “nerd”? Critics called it “goofy” or worse.
Of the many tribes of Michigan voters — the flinty Yoopers and salt-of-the-earth outstaters; the blue-collar workers (or former workers) and downtrodden Detroit masses; the Reagan Democrats and country-club Republicans of the suburbs — “nerd” is not one that comes to mind. (In Ann Arbor, they prefer to be called “intellectuals.”)
“Rick Snyder is a very bright entrepreneur,” the ad’s narrator says defensively, as if someone has suggested that he isn’t. “Who happens to adore Michigan” — still more defensive, as though loving Michigan were an unusual, even illicit thing to do. Mittenophilia! Snyder, half in shadow, is standing in front of a foosball table in what looks to be his basement rec room.
Snyder’s campaign touted the ad as an authentic, self-deprecating pitch for their candidate. Political professionals were skeptical, but it did generate buzz, locally and nationally, for its unusual tack.
All the same, things didn’t look good for Snyder. For months, he languished in third. He had an advantage in the millions of dollars of personal wealth he was prepared to spend on the race, but wealthy candidates run and lose all the time, often because they can’t convince voters they aren’t, well, out-of-touch rich guys hoping to buy an office.
The “nerd” thing, it turned out, gave Snyder a different identity. He wasn’t going to try to be a man of the people, something voters would surely see through. He was The guy who got his bachelor’s degree, MBA and law degree by age 23; the former president of Gateway Computers, the one with the cow spots on the box; the guy you didn’t want to be seen with in high school — but you wanted to borrow his chemistry notes. You wanted him to run your company. You, maybe, wanted him to run your state.
“In an anti-establishment year, he’s what people want — we’re seeing this around the country,” says Sabato. “He hasn’t been tainted by political experience. And that slogan is inspired, ‘tough nerd.’ This year, people have had it with glitz and glamour. They want someone who can produce. Someone who can get the job done.”
A video launched Bernero to fame, too.
In the fall of 2008, as Washington was debating whether to bail out the auto industry, he made the rounds of cable news shows and earned a modest reputation as a combative, quick-witted advocate. But the clip everyone remembers — the one that has gotten more than 600,000 views on YouTube under the heading, “MAYOR VIRG BERNERO OF LANSING MICHIGAN TEARS INTO FOX ANCHOR – HILARIOUS!!!THE ULTIMATE SERVE!” — came in February 2009.
General Motors had just announced a slate of cuts that included laying off workers, closing factories and eliminating venerable brands. Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett, who mispronounces his guest’s last name “Bernaro,” asks, “What’s your reaction to the (GM) plan?”
Bernero is on a webcam, so the image is fuzzy and the sound is tinny. He’s seated, elbows on the desk, hands clasped, leaning into the camera, in a pinstriped gray suit. He has slicked-back, close-cropped dark hair, big ears, linebacker-broad shoulders, and a look that’s perpetually both hangdog and boyish; he seems to be constantly blinking. One thing he’s incapable of looking is expensive. Even sitting in the governor’s chair, he would still look like a bodyguard, or a salesman.
“First of all, I gotta say, in all honesty, I was a bit offended by your question, ‘Have the unions given up enough?’” he says. “’Has the working man given up enough?’ My question is, has Wall Street given up enough for the billions they have taken? I gotta tell you, I am sick and tired of the double standard — one standard for Washington and Wall Street, and another standard for working people in this country. It always comes down to, in order to be more competitive, we’ve got to take it out of the hide of the working person — cut their pay, cut their benefits. How much is enough?”
Bernero says the auto companies are being “penalized for doing a social good” and adds, “Americans are sick and tired of it, all across this country, the double standard between working people — I know Wall Street doesn’t understand people and industries that actually produce something. …”
If all you know about Virgil Bernero is that he’s “America’s Angriest Mayor,” you might be disappointed watching this interview. Bernero is gesturing, but he’s not overheated, sputtering or flustered. He never raises his voice or pounds his fist; there are no popping neck veins or bulging eyeballs. He speaks in complete sentences of which he rarely loses track, concatenating them into paragraphs packed with memorable lines. He hardly ever says “um.” His arguments against free trade would make an economist cringe, but the supposedly angry mayor is unfailingly eloquent and composed, even in the face of extreme condescension. Are Midwesterners so meek that this is what passes for partisan fury?
Jarrett, the anchor, interrupts and enunciates slowly, with a theatrical frown to emphasize he’s talking to an idiot. “Mr. Mayor, there must be a disconnect on our Skype webcam, because I asked you about pay cuts and you’re talking about healthcare,” he says.
“The UAW’s made concessions, and I’m sure they’ll make more concessions,” Bernero says. “But if you think you’re going to make me feel guilty about the fact that” — here he puts his hand on his heart — “I had health benefits as a kid, and I was able to have straight teeth because my dad retired from GM, and if you think my 84-year-old
father and other retirees like him, hundreds of thousands across this country, if you think they should feel guilty for the benefits they received, I disagree with you.”
Like Snyder, Bernero was the last man standing in a primary nobody wanted him to win. Other potential Democratic candidates peeled away during the year Lt. Gov. John Cherry spent amassing his electoral juggernaut, a staff-heavy campaign that was bleeding money faster than the uninspiring Cherry could raise it. In January, Cherry pulled out, and eventually only Bernero and state House Speaker Andy Dillon were left.
Bernero wasn’t going to drop out — he loves running for office. He does it as often as possible, serving as county commissioner, state representative and state senator before losing a mayoral election before winning the mayoralty. He swore up and down he never wanted to run for governor, and then he ran for governor.
Though Dillon (whom Bernero dubbed “Speaker of the Mess”) was the early favorite, he was crippled by the fact that many of his positions were out of sync with liberal
Democrats. Bernero was endorsed by Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and, crucially for a campaign that raised under $1 million, the major unions, who spent major money on TV ads slamming Dillon. Bernero’s campaign itself didn’t air a single television spot.
Over the course of the campaign, Bernero gradually chipped away at Dillon’s lead. As the primary dawned, Democrats looked at their two candidates and either didn’t like either one or figured it was a foregone conclusion — leaving many with nothing better to do than vote in the Republican primary instead.
LUCKY OR GOOD?
Those Democrats might have gotten the idea from an initiative Snyder’s campaign had launched a couple of weeks earlier, spearheaded by liberal Republican former Congressman Joe Schwarz.
“Nobody is apolitical, but Rick is about as apolitical a guy as you can find to get the job done,” Schwarz said in an endorsement video posted on the Web site of the group the campaign dubbed Common Sense for Michigan. It was explicitly formed to encourage independent and Democratic voters to cross over in Michigan’s open primary and vote for Snyder.
It’s not a campaign strategy you’d find in any textbook: Hang around in third for as long as possible, counting on the frontrunners to beat up on one another. Refuse to fill out questionnaires from influential interest groups, even though nobody knows who you are. Refuse to debate the other candidates for the most part.
Run to the left in a Republican primary where all the other candidates are running to the right. Don’t describe yourself as a Republican or even a conservative on your campaign Web site or in your commercials. Then, with just a couple of weeks to go, issue an appeal for independents and Democrats.
If you were the consultant who mapped out this plan, you’d be laughed out of the room. Were Snyder’s expensive political operatives lucky or good? Or were they good enough to make the most of their lucky breaks?
Bill Nowling, spokesman for the Snyder campaign, says Snyder was the right man at the right time. “It wasn’t just a strategy to run as the outside candidate — he really is the guy from the outside,” Nowling says. “You had five candidates, four of whom were varying forms of the same archetype — a politician. Then here comes Rick Snyder. He wasn’t part of creating the mess. He’s got a good back story. He’s the kind of person who can think outside the box, who can work with Republicans and Democrats to come up with solutions that are going to work.”
The extent of Snyder’s departure from the GOP gospel is hard to overstate.
“In Michigan as in other places, there’s usually no such thing as too conservative in a Republican primary, or too liberal in a Democratic primary,” says Craig Ruff of the Lansing-based think tank Public Sector Consultants. “The grassroots voters who turn out are the zealots at the extremes of the ideological spectrum. But Snyder staked out differences all over the map.”
Snyder participated in one debate with his rivals and impressed nobody. The next two debates he skipped. At the time, “I felt it was a strategic error not to debate,” Ruff says. “It’s one of the few ways you can go on television statewide and look voters in the eye.” But by absenting himself from that stage, Snyder “made all the other candidates look like mirror images of each other.” Meanwhile, he answered questions from voters at dozens of town halls across the state, stifling the criticism that he was hiding from scrutiny.
On the issues, Snyder was similarly out of sync. Snyder’s top two Republican rivals, state Attorney General Mike Cox and U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, both signed a pledge not to raise taxes; Snyder refused, calling it “kind of a gimmick.” On the eve of the primary, Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform issued a press release warning conservative voters that Snyder might raise taxes.
In July, the Michigan Tea Party Alliance rented the Eaton County Fairgrounds outside Lansing for a “LiberTEA Fair.” “All of the Republican gubernatorial candidates except for one came and gave speeches,” organizer Gene Clem told me. That one was Snyder.
If the Tea Party represents the new, insurgent conservative movement, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is the old conservative establishment, anointing candidates with the imprimatur of the business community. Snyder didn’t return its questionnaire, disqualifying himself from consideration for its primary endorsement.
“All of the Republican candidates except Mr. Snyder chose to participate in our process,” says Rich Studley, the chamber’s president and CEO. “We were not able to evaluate him because of that decision.” The chamber endorsed Cox, who came in third. (Post-primary the chamber held no grudge and has endorsed Snyder.)
Right to Life Michigan, another organization accustomed to playing kingmaker, also endorsed Cox. “There were four very good, pro-life candidates in the Republican primary,” says Larry Gilmish, director of the group’s political action committee. “Unfortunately, those candidates split the pro-life vote and allowed Mr. Snyder to get in. That was the reason we endorsed Mr. Cox, to try to concentrate the pro-life vote” behind one candidate.
Snyder says he’s pro-life, but he’s willing to make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, and he firmly backs embryonic stem-cell research. Informed that that would rule out a Right to Life endorsement, a Snyder spokesman told the Detroit News that Snyder didn’t want it.
One endorsement Snyder did pick up was from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group many conservatives regard as a bunch of tree-huggers. It was the first time the league had ever endorsed a Republican candidate for governor. (It also endorsed Bernero in the Democratic primary and now supports both candidates.)
It all added up to a candidate many conservatives derided as a RINO, “Republican In Name Only” — and that was before he set up a whole campaign touting his appeal to non-Republicans. In the end, nearly two-thirds of Republican primary voters cast votes for someone other than Snyder. But in a five-way field, 36 percent was more than enough for Snyder to win.
“They laid low, they positioned him properly, and then, in the last few days, they sprung up and said, ‘Hey, Democrats, independents, I’m your guy!’ And they did it so late nobody could respond to it and give him the punch in the nose he had coming,” said Mark Grebner, a Democratic political consultant and Ingham County commissioner. “They could have smashed him by saying that he’s not a conservative, that he doesn’t really have Republican credentials. He won’t even say he’s against all taxes! We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible he’s actually sane! It’s possible Rick Snyder is actually dangerously in favor of raising taxes, which everybody knows we have to do!
“But nobody said any of this stuff, because he was in third place. He was like the whale that doesn’t surface until he’s out of range of the harpoon boats. By the time you see him, the whale is all the way over there, and you say, ‘Damn, that’s one smart whale.’”
Whoever wins this election will confront Michigan’s perpetual budget deficit and a legislature that is often deadlocked. The parties refuse to compromise on the big stuff, the budget situation will be worse with 2011’s loss of federal stimulus dollars, and Granholm’s many critics say she never managed to take control and lead.
It’s enough to make you despair that even a superhero, much less a politician, could fix it. (One of Snyder’s commercials reminds us that Superman, in his day job, was a nerd.) But several Michigan analysts told me to look back at the last businessman-outsider to serve as Michigan governor, George Romney, the moderate Republican former Ford Motors American Motors executive, who won two terms starting in 1962. How did that go?
“Romney was successful beyond anybody’s imagination,” says think-tank analyst Ruff. “He led a reform effort that led to the rewriting of the constitution. He greatly streamlined a state government that was wildly out of control.”