A self-described nerd, Rick Snyder is more of an executive than a politician.
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After spending most of his career in the private sector, he made the jump to the governor’s mansion in 2010 and has since garnered national attention for his policy decisions. As the country prepares for the 2016 presidential elections, pundits statewide and across the country have been tossing around the question — will “the nerd” make the transition from Lansing to Washington?
“Well, I don’t believe in playing traditional politics,” Snyder said in his 2015 State of the State address. “I’m not a career politician.”
Snyder’s name has appeared on speculative lists of potential candidates for the 2016 presidential race alongside other Midwest governors, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“There is a good deal of interest in the national media in governors as opposed to some of the establishment like (former Florida Governor Jeb) Bush and (former Massachusetts Governor Mitt) Romney,” said political syndicated columnist George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.
In a Congress that has become infamous for gridlock and partisanship, the outside perspective a governor can provide is a major strength for potential candidates.
“You look at the people we have leading Washington, and how much they bicker and fight — it would be nice to have someone who hasn’t grown up in that culture and isn’t used to that way of doing things,” said Law School student John Lin, who has served as Snyder’s assistant to the campaign manager, personal aide and assistant director of scheduling.
While Snyder has the advantage of being a fresh face in D.C., if he were to run, he would be facing considerable competition from other governors, should they also decide to run.
Susan Demas, a political columnist for MLive.com, said in the field of GOP governors in the Midwest — namely Walker, Kasich, and Pence — Snyder, due to his “aversion to really getting in the mix with politics” would be “fourth out of four.”
While there has been mounting evidence Snyder is planning to stay in Michigan — Snyder and his wife bought a $2 million condominium in downtown Ann Arbor — he has yet to formally discount a presidential run. In an election that has already generated much speculation from both parties, Snyder’s presence on the list of possible Republican candidates turns the spotlight on his credentials and record in Michigan.
An unlikely candidate
A University alum — he received an undergraduate degree in 1977, an MBA in 1979 and a law degree in 1982 — Snyder’s original career path led in the opposite direction of politics.
“I’m a CPA by training,” Snyder said.
He worked as a tax accountant at Detroit firm Coopers & Lybrand, making partner in just six years. Snyder then moved to Chicago and, after meeting the co-founder of Gateway Computers, became executive vice president, then CEO. In 1997 he returned to Michigan to start a venture capital firm.
In an interview with Lansing news channel WLNS, Snyder said the idea to run for governor first came up on a date with his wife, where she suggested he run for office after he listed off his solutions for the state’s many problems.
In 2010, Snyder, who had never held a political office in his life, ran against Lansing mayor and Democratic candidate Virg Bernero for the Michigan governorship. Running a campaign that branded him as “one tough nerd,” Snyder beat Bernero by 18 points.
Public Policy lecturer John Hieftje, former mayor of Ann Arbor, said he knew Snyder before he became governor. Hieftje said Snyder had continued to be accessible even after he assumed office.
In terms of his future career aspirations: “He certainly could go back into business,” Hieftje said. “He could be in the (U.S.) Cabinet. As far as I know, I’m taking the Governor on what he says now, which is to be governor.”
Relentless positive action
Since taking office in January 2011, Snyder has operated under the motto of “relentless positive action.”
“It’s about being positive in the way you conduct yourself, it’s about being relentless at solving problems,” Lin said. “No blame; no taking credit. It’s just getting things done and getting results.”
In his State of the State address in January, the governor discussed the improvements in state industries that occurred during his first term. Specifically, he pointed to an increase of 30,000 new jobs in the private sector, a 40-percent decrease in the unemployment rate and $2 million increase in tourism revenue.
“We have made the old unbelievable, achievable, and we have taken on many difficult issues,” Snyder said in the speech. “We’re better, but to be open with you better is not good enough. We need to do more.”
As well as improving aspects of the statewide economy, Snyder made the Detroit bankruptcy a primary focus of his first term. On June 2014, he authorized $195 million from the state of Michigan in addition to $366 million from foundations and $100 million from the Detroit Institute of Arts in a “grand bargain” to lift the city out of bankruptcy. The deal replaced cuts in city pensions and avoided the possibility of selling DIA-owned works.
“His record in Detroit and what he did there has been widely hailed and has gotten a lot of favorable press coverage beyond Michigan,” Weeks said. “It’s certainly a strong point for him.”
Snyder’s efforts have extended beyond national borders, forming global relationships to benefit the state. He traveled to China each year of his first term to work with Chinese companies to expand business in Michigan.
In March 2012 and again in March 2014, Snyder met with auto manufacturers and suppliers in Europe to bring their business to the state auto industry.
And, according to the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, his efforts paid off. In 2013, Michigan more than doubled its auto production in 2009, moving from about 1.1 million vehicles produced to almost 2.5 million, and created about 11,000 jobs in the automotive sector.
“Anyone that has seen his results should want to have that person leading the country,” Lin said.
Walking the party line
While Snyder’s résumé demonstrates his ability to enact positive change at the state level, his policy decisions haven’t always lined up with the national Republican party, which would prove difficult in a presidential primary.
“His prospects in the Republican party are relatively limited,” said Political Science Prof. Mike Traugott. “He’s not conservative enough.”
In September 2013, Snyder made Michigan one of three states in which Republicans hold the governorship and both legislative chambers that have approved the expansion of Medicaid as a part of the Affordable Care Act. In doing so, Michigan receives federal funding to extend Medicaid benefits to residents under the age of sixty-five that are up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
Unlike many of his GOP colleagues in Washington, Snyder has been aggressive on immigration. In his 2014 State of the State address, he urged the U.S. government to allocate 50,000 visas to skilled workers to immigrate to Detroit.
“There’s no doubt that highly skilled, legal immigrants with advanced academic degrees and entrepreneurial talents create jobs for Americans,” Snyder said in a statement before his 2014 speech.
Most recently, Snyder released a statement in early February declining to appeal the 300 same-sex marriages that were performed before Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a stay on the decision to strike down the state ban on gay marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments later this year on the legality of same-sex marriage.
Not all of Snyder’s decisions have been moderate, and on some issues, including domestic partner benefits and union membership, he has taken a strong conservative stand.
“Snyder has done a lot of things to please conservatives,” Demas said, citing the 2012 passage of the Right to Work law and business tax cuts. “He has gotten a lot of respect for that.”
Another hurdle Snyder would face as a presidential prospect is the political leaning of his own state. Though Michigan’s statewide elections have traditionally trended red — both houses have been dominated by Republicans since 2010, excluding the state Senate from 2007 to 2010 — it has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1992.
Even Romney, a Bloomfield Hills native whose father, George Romney, was Governor of Michigan, couldn’t carry the state in 2012.
“I don’t see that Michigan is suddenly going to go Republican after six straight presidential elections voting for Democrats,” Demas said. “Especially after how Romney did.”
In the most recent statewide midterm elections, Snyder achieved reelection by four points — after outspending his opponent, Mark Schauer, by more than $1 million between Sept. 13 and Oct. 19.
Despite the close reelection and the state’s voting history, the possibility of carrying Michigan cannot be completely discounted.
“The native son thing would definitely play in his favor,” Lin said. “(Michigan) is more purple than (it is) blue, so I think he has a good chance.”
Despite media speculation, the oval office isn’t the only place in Washington where Snyder’s skills could be put to use.
“The more serious talk would be in terms of a vice presidential role, though his wife has been very clearly not interested,” Demas said. “He’s a strong candidate for the Department of Treasury.”
Traugott said the low possibility of Snyder swaying Michigan red would put him on the bottom of the list of potential vice presidential candidates, but said he also saw a possibility of a U.S. Treasury Department appointment.
While Lin said Treasury or the U.S. Commerce Department may not be the best fit for the governor’s skill set, he said he believes Snyder would be a prominent addition to the Cabinet.
“I think he’d make a great Cabinet secretary,” Lin said. “He’d make a great trade representative given his knowledge of working with other countries.”
Weeks, citing past Michigan governors Soapy Williams and George Romney, said Snyder could be a candidate to serve in any Republican administration.
“If he ends up supporting or endorsing a particular candidate who ends up as president, that’s always a possibility,” Weeks said.
A Snyder presidential campaign has not officially been put out of the question, but it would face considerable obstacles. However, the fact that the Governor’s name is being discussed has statewide benefits.
“When CNN mentions Rick Snyder, they always mention the bankruptcy, taking Detroit out of bankruptcy, our low unemployment rate, the fact people are now moving to Michigan,” Lin said. “Four or five years ago, talk about Michigan, everyone thinks it’s the worst state to be, but now because of the changed narrative, people are now thinking positive thoughts about Michigan.
“There’s no reason to stop it.”