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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What do you see as the secret to what you do?

Relentless positive action. It’s all about solving problems in a relentless fashion. You just line them up, prioritize them, solve one, and then you just take the next one in a relentless fashion. [And] we don’t blame anyone for anything and we don’t take credit for anything.

 

Did you really come up with a life plan at 16?

Yeah, I built it. The nerd part is true. I built a career plan and said I wanted to have three careers. Then I looked at the career plan and said I wanted to have three degrees to set the platform for that. The guiding principles for my first career were: How I could do well financially, how I could help people, and how I could have fun. And then, I thought I wanted to do a second career, my public-sector career, and I could drop the financial and just say I want to help people and have fun. And my last career is that I want to be a professor or a teacher.

 

Any regrets?

Only a couple things. I wish I would’ve learned a foreign language. In today’s world, I would pick Spanish or Chinese. And I wish I would have looked at going someplace (after college) and spending a year outside the U.S. or a year in other parts of the U.S. — you know, doing more travel at that age.

 

Do you say you’re a conservative or a liberal?

I don’t do labels like that; I don’t see value in it.

 

Do you have political heroes?

In terms of heroes, no. There are people I clearly respect and view as positive role models. Gov. [William] Milliken … and what he did for the environment in Michigan. Actually, President Ford I always respected a lot, for integrity, coming in during a time of crisis.

 

If it had been up to you, would you have done the auto bailout?

Yes. I don’t believe in bailing out companies, but this was an entire industry … if GM and Chrysler went under, Ford would have gone under, because the suppliers would have failed.

 

What are you most looking forward to next?

The priority is the special messages we’re doing. September was Health and Wellness, October, infrastructure … and November, talent. Talent is the one I’m most excited about. I think we have a chance to be a national innovator.

 

You’ve made enemies with some of your decisions. Does the strident and nasty tone of some of the criticism get to you?

Some of it always gets to you to some degree, but as a practical matter, I generally don’t obsess on it. I just always say this is part of democracy, and it came with the job I ran for and got hired to do.

 

What should people know about you?

I just do my thing. I just come to work and do my job. I mean, family is huge to me, and I’ve always tried to put a priority on that. I hope people appreciate, you know, I want to see my kids do well. I’ve got a wonderful wife.

 

What about your parents?

They’re my real heroes. My parents would give me some money to help me [in college], because I didn’t have jobs all the time. And, the thing is, I kept track of it all, and paid them back when I graduated. They never expected to be paid back, and I didn’t want to insult them. So I kept a record of every dollar I got from them and calculated the interest on it — being a good nerd. And I gave them a Caribbean cruise and a trip to Florida the day I graduated.

 

How did you get the money for that?

Working. I actually invested in the stock market and did reasonably well.

 

Let’s imagine that you are successful as governor. What would Michigan look like 20 years from now?

We would clearly be a leading state in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship, quality of life. You’d have a vibrant Detroit and some of our other cities that are struggling would be exciting places. If you’re in a rural area, you could decide whatever career you wanted because … you’d have broadband and better access to local markets. And I still believe we’ll be a strong manufacturing state. Manufacturing has gotten a lot of attention [and] agriculture has been one of our big success stories.

 

I talked to one school superintendent who thinks there’s a plot to destroy public education….

Not at all! I’m an advocate of public education. I’m a product of it. And if you look at it (the challenge was), we haven’t been delivering results. The fundamental challenge here is that, structurally, I think the system is broken.

One of the big challenges there is to get that focus back on the kids … and measure performance and results. The model I want to get to is less district-centered and more classroom-centered.

 

When your time as governor is over, what do you hope they say about you?

That I did what I said I was going to do …

 


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