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Everything is political, even natural disasters


 Natural disasters, like the rain and floods that pounded metro Detroit this week, present a unique challenge for chief executives like Governor Rick Snyder. Natural disasters are certainly not like the slow work of trying to mend an economy, for example.

With natural disasters, all of an administration’s emergency planning is stress tested in real-time with real-life consequences. Years ago, Governor John Engler said a big natural disaster is any governor’s worst nightmare.

And, like most things with government, there are political consequences to natural disasters. How, for example, the public measures the way a chief executive handles the situation.

Here in Michigan, with the November election just two and a half months away, this was an important week for Governor Snyder. Which is why, when the magnitude of what was happening in metro Detroit became clear, the governor cut short a trip to the Upper Peninsula - a trip that included a fundraising event in Marquette - and returned downstate to reassure people that he was aware and in charge.

His administration certainly did not want a repeat of last winter, when Snyder was excoriated for not, at first, being visible during a powerful ice storm that knocked out electricity to big swaths of the state. We should note as well, however, that the governor’s Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer, was also not particularly visible during that ice storm.

So, this week, Governor Snyder flew south by helicopter, surveyed the damage and talked to the media. It was this latter part of his trip - speaking on WJR’s The Frank Beckman Show - that the Governor tried for a little empathy. “I’ve been through a lot of things like that… We just recently had holes in our roof from storm damage to our lake house, in terms of, yeah, we have a vacation place, and I had a limb come down from holes in the roof, had water running through the place. Those experiences are not pleasant ones, and we had to take some trees down,” the Governor said, trying to go for the common touch, the ‘I feel your pain’ explanation.

But, by most accounts, the Governor did him himself a disservice by comparing a leaky roof in a vacation home to the plight of those currently trying to assess hundreds of thousands of dollars in storm damage in southeast Michigan.

Democrats made sure that interview with WJR was widely circulated. (Snyder said it on the radio. No one had to send someone with secret spyglasses to tape it).

Meanwhile, the floods presented a political opportunity for Snyder’s Democratic challenger. After all, Mark Schauer does have to explain to the public how he would handle a crisis. But, as the Wicked Witch said in The Wizard of Oz, “these things must be done delicately, or you hurt the spell.”

Schauer’s political opening? The disaster declaration. It’s a necessary step to qualify for federal emergency assistance. While the governor was gathering information and saying it was still too early to declare a disaster, Schauer was calling on the governor to hop to it and get it done. Which, just hours later, the governor did.

Now, we have no idea if Mark Schauer’s statement contributed to the timing of the governor’s declaration. There’s no doubt in our minds that, at some point, a declaration was going to happen. But it did contribute to the timing of a statement from Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak blasting Schauer for being in west Michigan while the disaster was taking place in southeast Michigan.

And, we also have no idea if the prodding from the Republican chairman in any way contributed to the timing of Mark Schauer’s decision to head over to metro Detroit to have his picture taken assisting in cleanup efforts. And we certainly don’t know if that has anything to do with the timing of Governor Snyder’s trip to storm-damaged areas this afternoon (where we’ll no doubt see pictures of him assisting with the cleanup).

All of this is part of the job interview currently underway for Snyder and Schauer. In the case of a governor, handling the crisis and campaigning on the crisis are entwined; they can’t be separated because people use it to judge how he’s handling the overall job.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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