Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Shares the Secrets to 'Being a Good Nerd'

THE NERD'S PROGRESS: When he took the reins in Lansing, Gov. Rick Snyder didn’t have any political experience. Still, he’s had stunning success at seeing most of his important policies approved by the Legislature


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photograph courtesy of office of the governor


Michigan has rarely seen the likes of Richard Dale Snyder, the governor who calls himself Rick, hates wearing ties, and who says he isn’t a politician — except that he is a phenomenally successful one.

Few outside the venture-capital and high-tech world of Ann Arbor had heard of him before he burst onto the scene in early 2010, running a commercial during the Super Bowl and proclaiming he was “one tough nerd.”

His personal plan had worked out, to be sure. Born Aug. 19, 1958, Snyder grew up in a 900-square-foot house in Battle Creek. His father worked for a window-cleaning business.

The younger Snyder began reading Business Week at 8, and earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s of business administration, and a law degree at University of Michigan before he was 24. He went to work for Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), then went to Gateway computers, where he rose to president.

Eventually, he sold his share in the company for $24 million, and came back to Ann Arbor with his wife, Sue, to bring up their three children and start several venture-capital firms and invest in others.

But governor?

Political experts rolled their eyes at the announcement. Reporters on public television’s Off the Record scoffed at the idea that Michigan’s blue-collar voters would elect anyone calling himself a nerd.

Besides, he sounded suspiciously liberal on the so-called social issues. He was, after all, enthusiastically in favor of embryonic stem-cell research.

Michigan Right to Life endorsed Attorney General Mike Cox. The western Michigan establishment was solidly behind U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra. Here in metro Detroit, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson backed his homey, Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

Defying such alignments, Snyder beat all primary rivals by 100,000 votes. Then he romped to victory in the general election.

Yeah, they then said. But could he get anything done? He didn’t have a day’s worth of experience in government, let alone in Lansing.  

The departing Jennifer Granholm, perhaps the weakest governor this state has had since the ineffectual Kim Sigler (1947-49), blamed a relative lack of inexperience for her failings. (She had served a full term as Michigan’s attorney general.) What did that spell for the neophyte nerd?

As it turned out, the best word is amazing.

Whatever you think of his policies, there’s no doubt that he’s had stunning success at ramming them through the Legislature.

Within mere months, he got lawmakers to repeal the Michigan Business Tax and replace it with a much lower corporate income tax, one designed to entice new business to the state.

To partially replace the revenue, he got legislators who had sworn never to entertain thoughts of a tax increase to enact a new tax on pensions. He also got them to agree to significantly cut spending for schools and revenue sharing.

The lawmakers gave him a powerful new Emergency Financial Manager law to use with local governments and school districts unable to control their own spending. Teacher tenure was substantially changed, along with a host of other reforms and changes in local government and school operations.

Only one challenge thwarted him in his early months: getting legislative approval for a new bridge spanning the Detroit River.

Legislators, many of their pockets puffed with campaign contributions from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, were still balking into the fall, but the governor vowed to somehow get it done.

Hour Detroit talked with Snyder early this fall.

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