POLITICS & PREJUDICES
Mackinac Island Follies
Published: June 5, 2013
MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – Rick Snyder is, without a doubt, the most thoroughly business-oriented governor in the modern history of this state. Without even trying, he talks like some sort of an executive trainer brought in to fire up the sales staff.
“Government? What’s the role of government? Not to spend money. It’s to give you great government service — customer service!” he told an enthusiastic crowd of mostly business types at the end of their Mackinac festival last Friday.
“It’s about teamwork! It’s about talent! It’s about cooperation and getting more cost-efficient!”
Indeed, few politicians have ever done as much to please Michigan business interests as Richard Dale Snyder, the 54-year-old boy from Battle Creek who earned three degrees from the University of Michigan and went on to make millions with Gateway computers, and then in venture capital.
Within months after taking office in 2011, Snyder got the Legislature to dramatically lower business taxes, in part by ruthlessly cutting education and taxing pensions.
Since then, he’s mostly battled on business’ behalf — not against the impotent Democrats — but against a pigheaded set of right-wing ideologues in the Legislature who have fought his attempts at transportation and infrastructure improvements.
Business, indeed, has ample reason to love Snyder. You might have thought then that, say … the Pulte Group, would have hesitated to humiliate him during a conference that, this year, was staged as sort of a celebration of his successes.
Moments before Snyder took the stage to close out the Mackinac conference, word filtered through the crowd that Pulte had kicked the governor in the face by announcing it was moving from Bloomfield Hills to Atlanta.
Farewell, 300-plus jobs. (Dan Gilbert called Pulte’s CEO a “punk” over this.) Snyder himself didn’t know what to say, but tried to keep up his “relentless positive action” mantra.
“We need to grow. Let’s grow the state,” he said, perhaps reflecting that Georgia is about to pass Michigan in population.
Apart from that stunningly embarrassing moment, the governor had been enjoying what was largely a three-day love fest on Michigan’s premier resort island. Each year at the end of May, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce throws a three-day party, mislabeled a “conference,” at the ostentatious Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island — a place best known for the mingled smells of fudge and horseshit, equine and otherwise.
Besides business types, the event draws a swarm of lobbyists, politicians and media, all hungry for contacts — and overflowing amounts of free food and booze.
The chamber always brings in a bevy of national speakers, usually prominent media figures and politicians. This year’s gathering was more heavily right-wing than most; the speakers were presidential maybe-wannabe Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, the controversial education reformer, and Joe Scarborough.
The undercurrent theme was Michigan’s “comeback,” and whether by accident or design, the national types each in their own separate ways sent a semi-subtle message: Don’t let irrational ideological yahoos keep corporate Republicans from power. Scarborough lambasted Washington types like outgoing congressperson Michele Bachmann and new Senator Ted Cruz, and said the GOP’s rational future lies with its many forward-thinking governors. Former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee is no friend of teachers’ unions, but has no use for right-wing idiots who oppose the widely accepted Common Core Curriculum set of things all kids need to learn.
“People say we don’t like it when the federal government tells us what to do. I say, you really shouldn’t like the fact that China is kicking our butts right now,” she proclaimed.
The previous day, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, had noted that the Common Core standards are an initiative sponsored, not by the feds, but by the National Governors Association. Bush even met with some Michigan legislators to tell them dropping the Algebra II requirement was a bad idea. Reportedly, they indicated they couldn’t care less.
Mostly, however, Bush’s message was that sneering at immigration wasn’t smart, politically or economically.
“Immigrants are twice as likely to start business as American-born citizens,” he noted. He also made the surprisingly candid observation that Republicans seem to be sending the message to Hispanics and Asians that “we want your votes, but you can’t join our club.”
“I usually tried to win when I ran for office,” he said dryly. How much effect this will have on the legislators or those who own them is hard to say. What was clear was the vast majority of those at Mackinac were enthusiastically pro-Snyder.
However, there were a few interested parties on the fringes who weren’t. One was Mark Schauer, the designated Democratic nominee for governor next year.
The other was Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair — a far more shrewd and savvy numbers-cruncher than his party has ever had in that job. With him was his talented wife Julianna Smoot, a nationally renowned Democratic fundraiser with close ties to the Obama White House.
They know there are millions in Michigan who don’t share the rah-rah enthusiasm of the chamber of commerce crowd for Snyderism, people for whom “relentless positive action” has had no positive effects they can see.
Johnson and Schauer mean to make a race of it next year. And it is just possible they gained a few converts this week.
Mainly, folks who used to work for the Pulte Group.
ONE OF THE FEW events at Mackinac to allow Democrats on stage was a mayoral debate among four of the many candidates for mayor of Detroit.
They included front-runners Benny Napoleon, the Detroit police chief turned Wayne County sheriff, and Mike Duggan, Wayne County fixer and Livonia native turned Detroiter.
> Email Jack Lessenberry