The latest casualty of the Flint water crisis: democracy in Michigan
Is Michigan’s outgoing governor a partisan hack?
Rick Snyder ran for Michigan governor in 2010 calling himself “one tough nerd.” Winning just 36% of the vote in a crowded field scored him the GOP nomination as a result of a large field that included the Attorney General, the Oakland County Sheriff, the Secretary of State, a Congressman and a State Senator. Snyder was the only non-politician of the bunch.
Many of these other candidates were partisan warriors who had fought their way through earlier Republican primaries. In so doing, they had enamored themselves with the GOP base that loved partisan red meat. Remember that most of the primary vote went to these others.
Snyder, however, was different. While he certainly painted himself as a conservative, his background was in business. He presented himself as a person who could get things done, who was above the political fray. His general lack of involvement in the party prior to running for Governor allowed him to avoid being painted with this partisan brush.
Upon his election, Snyder relished the fact that he did not owe his position to the Republican hierarchy. He refused to hew to the party orthodoxy, pushing the Republican legislature to increase taxes to fund road construction, increasing the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, and expressing support for gun control. When he ran for re-election in 2014, he was handily re-elected at the same time as Democrat Gary Peters was trouncing the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. He did so largely because, based upon his record, he was viewed as a moderate.
Most tellingly, in 2012, he vetoed a Republican bill that would have required voters to present ID before they could vote. The bill, which matched similar anti-democratic efforts at voter suppression in other states, was a favorite among Republican activists who sought to reduce minority votes.
So Snyder seemed different. He was not like Pat McCrory, the Republican governor of North Carolina who spearheaded an effort to reduce the powers of the incoming Democratic governor who had defeated him in the 2016 election. He was not like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who reveled in fighting unions and reducing the power of the one statewide Democratic official. He didn’t seem like another GOP partisan hack?
So what happened? Snyder, shortly before he left office, behaved just like McCrory and Walker by signing poor loser legislation that aimed to reduce the power of the incoming Democratic administration. He also signed last-minute lame-duck legislation aimed at making it harder for citizens to petition the state through referenda. These are blatant anti-democratic acts that are sure to sully the legacy of someone who positioned himself as being above politics.
But this is where the tragedy of Rick Snyder becomes clear. He would have liked to leave office known as the governor who put the state before politics. But he can’t. He will be forever known as the governor who presided over the poisoning of children in Flint.
The lead poisoning scandal is international news. Even Miss Michigan referenced it at the televised Miss America competition, introducing herself as being “from a state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water, but none for its residents to drink.” The 2016 Presidential candidates came to Flint to express their outrage.
Snyder’s role in this scandal, however, is unclear. He appointed the emergency manager tasked with addressing Flint’s financial crisis who started taking water directly from the Flint river rather than buying it from the City of Detroit. This move saved local taxpayers money. But in the process, the more corrosive water leached lead from the city’s old pipes, resulting in the poisoning of children.
Did Snyder know about this problem before it became public? The jury is literally still out on this question, since lawsuits are pending. Nevertheless, he was in charge at the time. As a result, this is the only thing anybody will remember about him, no matter what his other accomplishments.
As a result, Snyder felt no need to protect his legacy. In fact, there was none left to protect. Now when he was pressed by Republicans to sign blatantly anti-democratic partisan legislation, there was no reason for him not to. He was already demonized in the eyes of anybody who might push him to behave as the responsible moderate he had presented himself as up until now.
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