I’d seen Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder’s TV ads for his gubernatorial run for several weeks, but I had tuned him out entirely — I just don’t believe elections are something we should be perpetually worried about. Over spring break, I finally took the time to tune into the hype.

Snyder wore me down. While the Republican primary — in which Snyder is among a handful of strong candidates — is still months away, I can’t deny any longer that this upcoming gubernatorial election is Michigan’s most important in recent memory, and Snyder is more than just an instigator — he’s a game changer.

As the earliest, and easily the most eager participant in this race, it’s easy to dismiss Snyder as a distraction rather than an attraction — like, say, Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul in the last presidential election. His “one tough nerd” ads do have all the makings of a sham, but Michigan’s voters have nothing to lose by tuning in. And so I did.

Snyder claims to be different from the established politicians that otherwise populate the field of hopefuls for both major parties in this election. In that, he is being entirely truthful. Republicans Mike Cox and Peter Hoekstra, and Democrats Virg Bernero and Andy Dillon — who seem to be the frontrunners of their respective parties — are what we’d call career politicians. While I disagree with Snyder that that’s always bad, given the dire straits Michigan is in economically, it’s understandable that this state’s electorate has been outright apathetic about this election as long as those were the only names we heard.

But ever since Snyder has become a prominent player, interest in the election has deepened. Snyder has started the right conversation, and I see that as just as important an accomplishment as actually becoming elected and succeeding as governor. Snyder has forced the other candidates to abandon tired platitudes engrained in traditional party platforms and begin to talk about real concerns of the people of this state — and believe me, those have very little to do with how a candidate feels about gay marriage.

I maintain that Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s failures, especially over the past couple of years, have been failures of circumstance. Nevertheless, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny that she might have been the wrong leader for the time. Snyder is an accomplished businessman, who may very well be exactly what this state needs to lead it back toward prosperity. Even so, it’s important to snoop a little deeper to understand what this man really stands for. For one thing, even Snyder’s campaign ads invite voters to do so.

I looked through the mountain on information on Snyder’s campaign website and was pleasantly surprised to see that he actually seemed to have done his homework. I think it’s safe to say that no student has to time to read through all of the detailed “white papers” on his website outlining the candidate’s full plans for issues like regulatory reform, youth retention in the state, the environment and the state’s education system. So, I decided to pick out and read through one white paper on a topic that especially interested me: the development and revitalization of Michigan’s central cities.

Snyder certainly says all the right things here. As a resident of Michigan who plans to stay in the state after getting my law degree, I was happy to see echoed in his white paper many of my own concerns. Many talented young people come to this state to receive a world-class education at this University, and yet none of them end up staying. The reason for this is that there simply isn’t the social, business and commercial infrastructure in place in Michigan’s cities to attract young people who have a choice about where to live and work.

That Snyder recognizes this problem is itself a huge first step, and separates him by miles from his opponents in the Republican primary, who remain tied to tired political games of blaming the Democrats, blaming Granholm, or better yet, blaming President Barack Obama. But recognizing isn’t enough, because we’ve heard Granholm talk about these problems before too. The advantage Snyder has is that he approaches the state’s problems as an outsider, who is not tied to any traditional way of political maneuvering. Where Granholm had enough political capital to talk and do nothing more, Snyder, if elected, would have the mandate to act as well.

Snyder wants Michigan’s voters to know that he is among those rare people who will be the right leader at the right time. Every candidate says this, but reading into what Snyder stands for, and knowing what I know about the state’s economic and social atmosphere, I think there might be something to what this guy says.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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