Less than two weeks from now, Rick Snyder will be just another former Michigan governor.
He says he’ll return to a vague future that could include advising start-ups and doing a little teaching at his alma mater in Ann Arbor. From there, he’ll have a front-row seat to watch his successor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, and her allies try to overturn the worst aspects of his tenure as they see them, anyway.
Snyder’s is a mixed legacy, marked by breakthrough successes, career-defining failures and more than a little luck.
Michigan’s rebound, touted repeatedly by the guv during his waning months in office, is real. It got a boost from tax and budgeting reforms he championed. But it arguably got a bigger boost from a national economy that started growing again before he took office in 2011 from recapitalized automakers enjoying their longest run of sales and profit growth since the 1960s from billions in private capital invested in a restructured Detroit.
The state is more fiscally disciplined. Its business tax climate is one of the most competitive in the country. Its unemployment rate is plumbing historic lows. Its largest city, given up for dead by so much of the country, quickly navigated municipal bankruptcy and is reviving on the strength of smart leadership.
It’s worth remembering that Detroit probably wouldn’t be one of America’s hottest major cities today without the historic bankruptcy that eliminated billions in debt, rationalized the city’s assets … and ensured pensioners could retire with the vast majority of what they were owed.
The alternative was far worse. And the result wouldn’t be the Detroit of today. By luck and design, Snyder deserves credit for leading the reinvention – any governor would, Republican or Democrat, given similar results.
And yet … the Flint water crisis will be a permanent stain on the Snyder years, a lead-tainted affront to the parents and children of the state’s second-largest minority-majority city.
More than anything in his eight years as governor, Flint exposed the weakness of the CEO-turned-technocrat. In Snyder’s world, data trumped politicking, but a politician’s sense for political peril would have served Snyder well when faced with stinking brown water from Flint. Instead, he hewed to the data, ensuring that both he and the city would pay heavy prices for years to come.
Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley recently described Snyder as the most nonpartisan politician he knew – an asset and a liability when governing in a hyper-partisan age. It helped Snyder with Democratic Detroit, but it hurt with Republicans in the Legislature. They didn’t fear him, and it showed in big ways.
He can’t deny that educational attainment among Michigan’s public school students is worse today than when he took office. Or that roads in the state that put America on wheels are an embarrassment. Or that his feud with Attorney General Bill Schuette divided Republicans and undermined enthusiasm in the November elections.
Is he leaving office with Michigan in better shape than he found it? Yes, by some measures – but not by others.
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.