LANSING, Mich — Approaching two years in office, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is in many ways the same low-key, mildly partisan and relentlessly positive businessman who gave his first inaugural address on Jan. 1, 2011.
Snyder, an accountant, former computer executive and political novice, campaigned in 2010 as “one tough nerd,” but was often described as “a breath of fresh air” for his non-confrontational and inclusive approach to governing.
But those kinder, gentler days appear to be over. And it all changed on Dec. 11.
That’s when Snyder used police on horseback and in riot gear to keep protesters at bay outside his office while he signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation into law, just hours after he and GOP lawmakers rushed it through the lame-duck Legislature in five contentious days.
“What changed is Snyder himself,” said Gleaves Whitney, a political scientist who wrote a biography of former Michigan governor John Engler and is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.
“Gov. Snyder is willing to play hardball when he has to. He’s shown something about himself that I don’t think people were expecting.”
Suddenly Snyder, who appeared well-positioned for re-election in 2014, faces accusations of betrayal and plunging approval numbers.
The left is furious, and many independents, a key voting bloc in getting him elected in 2010, are disappointed with Snyder’s about-face on right-to-work, which he had said repeatedly was too divisive and not on his agenda. The change ends the closed shop by making it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment.
At the same time, the move did not solidify Snyder’s position on the right because he said repeatedly he supported the concept of right-to-work, but would have postponed the issue if he controlled the agenda.
The governor’s reluctance there, along with his veto of measures such as a written citizenship declaration on ballot applications and a recent gun bill that would have allowed concealed-weapons permit-holders with special training to carry their guns in formerly forbidden areas, such as schools and churches, help explain why he continues to be called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) on right-wing blogs and social media postings. Controversial abortion bills awaiting Snyder’s signature pose a similar challenge.
As he continues to push changes that he says will improve Michigan’s environment for creating jobs — signing bills to phase out personal property taxes on industrial equipment as recently as Thursday — the health of the state’s economy over the next two years will likely be the major factor in determining whether he can win a second term.
State officials warn that some overhauls, such as the personal property tax, could have a harsh ripple effect on the state’s budget in the next couple years.
“It makes for a more challenging environment,” Snyder told the Free Press about the level of controversy surrounding right-to-work and other changes pushed through during the lame-duck session of the Legislature. “In terms of my legacy, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I didn’t take this job to be a career politician.”
Still, Snyder said Friday of how 2012 will be remembered: “I think we accomplished a lot. The goal is to reinvent our state.”
The fact that the governor has managed to spread disappointment across the political spectrum is not really a bad thing, some say.
“Gov. Snyder seems to have alternated between angering Tea Party Republicans and progressive Democrats with his policies since taking office,” said Greg Markus, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
“That’s probably a good indication that his political approach is not sharply ideological, although it is clearly pro-business.”
Michigan’s business community has every reason to love Snyder, who in addition to weakening unions through right-to-work laws that could severely limit their funding source, has cut business taxes more than $2 billion by pushing for and signing legislation to eliminate the hated Michigan Business Tax and phase out the personal property tax over 10 years.
“With the stroke of his pen … Gov. Snyder made Michigan more competitive for job-creating capital investment,” Michigan Manufacturers Association President and CEO Chuck Hadden said of the change to personal property tax.
“We appreciate the Snyder administration’s work to eliminate this major barrier to economic success.”
Even before approval of the PPT phase-out, Michigan’s population nudged up after years of decline, and the Tax Foundation improved Michigan’s tax-friendliness rating to 12th from 18th, based largely on elimination of the MBT.
“We are on the cusp of becoming a top 10 state,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.
Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said it will take time for recent tax changes to manifest themselves in the form of more jobs for Michigan residents, but the effects “will be profound.”
Brandenburg grades Snyder’s first two years with an A.
“This legislative session, we literally made history,” he said. “I don’t think you can find in the history of this state where a Legislature has done more for businesses of all types than we have.”
But as Snyder’s stock soars with business, it may be plummeting among general voters.
Only one poll of Snyder’s approval ratings, by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina, has been published since the right-to-work issue exploded. PPP is a Democratic firm that uses automated phone calls rather than live operators, but an analysis by Nate Silver of the New York Times showed it performed relatively well during the Nov. 6 election campaign, when its polls showed a 1.6 percentage point bias in favor of Republicans.
The PPP poll, which was conducted Dec. 13-16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, found 38% of Michigan voters approve of Snyder and 56% disapprove. That compares with 47% approval and 37% disapproval the last time PPP polled Snyder, just before the Nov. 6 election.
After Snyder’s about-face on right-to-work, Henry Williams, a retired Vietnam veteran in Detroit who said he never belonged to a union and considers himself an independent, said: “It was duplicitous. I don’t wish him to run again.”
Democratic political consultant Todd Cook, a partner in Main Street Strategies in Lansing, said Snyder’s popularity could take another hit around April, when personal income tax changes approved in 2011, including higher pension taxes and elimination of certain tax credits and deductions, affect tax returns for the first time.
“His position has kind of evolved,” Cook said. “He’s more of a right-winger who wants to be portrayed as a moderate,” and “he’s done things that John Engler could only have dreamed to have done.”
Engler, governor in 1991-2002, was a conservative and much more partisan Republican who championed cuts to the welfare system, state government privatization and welfare reform.
“Engler was prickly. He had sharp elbows. Snyder’s got this soft demeanor,” Cook said. “He may not serve up the red meat as much, but the results are as bad, or worse.”
Snyder said he is “grayer, older, wiser” since 2010. He said he has learned a lot, and still is “proud to be a nerd.”
The governor said his top priorities in 2013 will be matching Michigan talent with employers’ job needs, and improving the state’s roads and other infrastructure.
“We’re going to continue to work hard, but it may not seem that every day is a relentless positive action day,” he said.
“We just have to keep thinking about how we make life better for Michigan’s citizens.”