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Published: Friday, 4/22/2011

COMMENTARY

Snyder shows unexpected political savvy

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Four months ago, there was near-universal agreement about Michigan's then Gov.-elect Rick Snyder: He was not a politician. He'd never been politically active, had never run for public office before, and was not a great speaker.

All true -- except for the "not a politician" part. It should now be clear that the rookie governor is one of the most brilliant political operatives Michigan has ever seen.

This newly elected Republican got an amazing deal from a Democratic President. The Obama Administration agreed to count the $550 million Canada offered Michigan for the proposed new Detroit River bridge as federal highway matching funds. That means the state may get as much as $2 billion in badly needed funds from the feds without Michigan taxpayers having to spend a nickel.

Next, the "nonpolitical" governor got a tough new emergency-financial-manager law through the Legislature with the ease of a hot knife slicing through butter. And he won the repeal of a decades-old law requiring that every item in stores be stamped with an individual price.

When lawmakers balked at his proposal to tax pension income, fearing senior citizens' wrath, Mr. Snyder huddled with the leadership and came up with an innovative compromise.

Only future pensions would be taxed. For now, the difference would be made up by fiddling with the homestead tax credit and a patchwork quilt of other items. The governor will still get the policy he wants, just a bit more slowly.

Other than that, the Legislature seems poised to pass the radical new budget the governor wants, essentially intact.

Though angry protesters have demonstrated outside the Capitol, their fury didn't seem to approach levels seen in Ohio and Wisconsin. And Mr. Snyder is serenely unmoved, saying it was "democracy at work." Democrats, reduced to badly outnumbered minorities in the state House and Senate, have responded with what might best be described as muted whining.

Few had any hint that Mr. Snyder would accomplish so much so quickly when the 52-year-old onetime whiz kid from Battle Creek took the oath of office on New Year's Day.

Plenty of the smart set in Lansing figured the rookie governor would have big-time problems being effective. After all, he had no government experience. Nor had the computer executive and venture capitalist ever run for office before.

He hadn't been the first choice of most of the Michigan Republican establishment, which would have been more comfortable with former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra or former state Attorney General Mike Cox.

Mr. Snyder had no long-established relationships with legislators, either. During the campaign, he let slip that he didn't know the name of the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, he staged a shrewd primary campaign, won the November election in a walk, and entered office intent on ramming a revolutionary program through the Legislature. He appears to be close to persuading lawmakers to drop virtually all of it into his Easter basket.

There are still a few sticking points. Although his budget seems close to becoming reality, there will be differences to iron out.

In addition, Republicans in the House still seem to be balking at his proposal to support the new Detroit-to-Windsor bridge, despite the huge advantages to Michigan. Some clearly are doing the work of Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun, who is trying to preserve his monopoly. Others may be confused.

But the real test for the governor won't come from the Legislature, but from the outside world. Mr. Snyder is gambling Michigan's future on a hunch: Slash business taxes and new business, jobs, and tax revenue will come flowing in.

What nobody says, but everyone knows, is that if this doesn't work -- and pay off relatively fast -- the state could end up in even worse shape than it is now.

The next few years may be very interesting indeed.

What about a recall? With considerable fanfare, Citizens United has announced a campaign to collect signatures to remove Governor Snyder from office.

They've got a Facebook page and a Web site. They have filed paperwork to get their petition language approved, which they hope will happen after a hearing next Friday in Ann Arbor.

Without a doubt, there are boatloads of people angry at the governor and his policies. But what are the chances of the recall being successful at least in getting on the November ballot?

Essentially, zero. Under Michigan law, if its language is approved, Citizens United would have 90 days to collect 806,522 valid signatures. Since some signatures are always disqualified, the recall group acknowledges it needs more than a million signatures. That would mean collecting more than 10,000 a day.

Even proposals to get amendments on the ballot usually fail unless they can pay handsomely to collect signatures -- and an amendment only requires about a third as many signatures as a recall.

The recall's main organizer says he has raised "about $1,000." This effort is unlikely to cost the governor a lot of sleep.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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