TIM SKUBICK: Snyder’s biggest challenge

Tim Skubick

The governor’s handling of Detroit’s financial crisis will prove to be a key part of his legacy

Governors like to control their own destiny. They are control freaks in the most benign sense of the word, in that they don’t like tackling unanticipated issues. In a perfect world, surprises would not happen.

But in the real world stuff does happen. Previous governors dealt with the statewide chemical contamination of the food chain, the loss of a major GM plant to Texas, the recall of two Democratic state senators and two auto companies on the precipice of bankruptcy.

Take this to the bank — Bill Milliken, John Engler, Jim Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm in their worst nightmares never anticipated all that. How they grappled and adlibbed their way through those issues challenged their leadership abilities and contributed to their long-term legacy.

The current occupant of that office breezed through his first year, but stands right now embroiled in his biggest challenge to date: saving the City of Detroit. The outcome is in doubt. And for you outstaters who could give a hoot, take heed. If Detroit ends up in the dumper, your local economy will suffer, too.

None of this was a surprise to Gov. Rick Snyder, who campaigned on a platform that included helping Motown get back on its feet. But not even he could have anticipated how bad it would get.

Much of what he has done to date has not played well in Detroit, where city officials have been shoving this financial mess under the rug for years in a classic example of an approach-avoidance attitude. With the City now faced with payless paydays, the governor has evoked the Emergency Manager law that he hatched with lawmakers last year. While the unions cried “union busting,” the governor’s message was that he was trying to save union jobs by attempting to keep our urban centers from drowning in red ink.

So when the governor ordered a financial review of the city books recently, the first step in the EM process, there was pushback that caught the governor by surprise. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, Mayor Dave Bing, the City Council and other city officials basically told the governor to get lost.

El governor was blindsided and confesses, “No one likes to be surprised.” He concedes his relationship with the folks down there is a little “rocky,” but he promises to help, not criticize, and to support, not point fingers.

And when others suggest that his actions are “igniting tensions,” he notes that persons who talk about igniting tensions are actually igniting tensions, too.

His next move, to appoint a 10-person review team, got better marks. He demonstrated his grasp of the issue by appointing leaders with strong roots in the community; persons with instant credibility and a desire to clean up this mess once and for all.

Grudgingly, even some of the governor’s critics had to concede he made the right choices.

This governor realizes that the city does not want interference from Lansing, as he recalls that a former GOP governor wiped out the Detroit school board, and the bad blood from that is still on the ground.

Yet, the always upbeat Mr. Snyder reflects, “Just because it happened once before, is it all the same or is there an opportunity to work together?”

In Flint, where an EM is on the job, the governor actually attended a town hall meeting and came away with good vibes.

Let him try that in Detroit and see what he gets.

Regardless of what he does on other issues in this new year, the “Detroit problem” will continue to be the elephant in the room, and how he herds that elephant will either be his Waterloo or his finest hour.

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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Posted by Tim Skubick

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.

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