MACKINAC ISLAND — Gov. Rick Snyder is trying to hit the refresh button on his political capital.
In his opening remarks at last week's Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, Snyder told the business crowd he was focused on finding solutions to the state's challenges — namely, lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint and a long-running legislative battle over the proposed debt restructuring of Detroit Public Schools.
During his first appearance at Mackinac, he compared talking to the media to talking to Eeyore, the forlorn donkey from Winnie the Pooh. The context? Chatter over the prospects for his political career and even whether he would leave office before the end of his term.
"The reports of my demise are well overblown," he told the crowd. Some people later commented he sounded defensive.
"I probably cleared the air on the first day," Snyder told Crain's in an interview Friday on Mackinac Island. "The tone was not good on ourselves.
"I viewed the second day as, 'OK, now that the air's been cleared, let's talk about that future.'"
Snyder's message is focused on Michigan's future but, simultaneously, he has to navigate his own. With two years left in his second term, the Republican governor is dealing with challenges in Flint and Detroit that threaten to overshadow his efforts to reduce unemployment, boost skilled-trades employment and address crumbling infrastructure.
"He knows that he is being … seen as someone who has lost his political capital...and he's trying really hard to push back on that," said Ron Fournier, a Detroit native and senior political columnist for the National Journal who presented at the conference.
"He struck me as someone who was, generally speaking, awfully determined to put up the façade as someone who wasn't in doubt," said Fournier, who said he sat down with Snyder for 20 minutes on the island. "(He was) really defensive, leaning really hard with his case and his talking points for the progress that has been made in Flint and Detroit and the successes that he thinks he's had and where he hopes to take the state."
Snyder remains popular among business leaders. He had a 59 percent approval rating in a May survey of Crain's subscribers conducted by Lansing-based Epic-MRA. More respondents favor Snyder than President Barack Obama or any of the remaining candidates vying to replace him.
Survey respondents overwhelmingly say they believe Snyder should remain in office, with 78 percent in favor of the governor finishing his term.
Among all voters, it's a different story. A new poll of likely statewide voters found 52 percent disapprove of the job Snyder is doing, The Detroit News reported.
Ken Sikkema, a Republican who served as Senate Majority Leader from 2002 to 2006, said Snyder can remain an effective governor, but that he must “recognize the hand he’s been dealt.”
“He has two liabilities,” Sikkema said. “One is the Flint hangover. Clearly, there is a public perception that his administration is responsible for what happened in Flint. It happened on his watch and that’s a liability. Second, he’s in the last couple years of his term. For any governor, that’s a liability because you’re basically a lame duck.”
Even before Flint, Snyder had trouble moving his agenda, Sikkema said. “If you look at the record, 2011-12 were super-productive, Sikkema said. “But after 2012, things really slowed down. It wasn’t just Flint. I can’t think of one big thing that’s been done in the past few years, and that’s a problem.”
For Snyder to be effective, he needs to think carefully about what he wants to accomplish, and who his partners will be to achieve those goals, Sikkema said. “It’s harder but it’s not impossible. He just has to pick and choose wisely.”
Some business executives say Snyder is wounded but has an opportunity — if he takes it — to lead not only on Flint and DPS but also on the rest of his agenda.
"You're in a boxing match. Someone hits you with a blow across your face. What do you do?" said Ron Boji, president of Lansing-based real estate developer The Boji Group, who attended the conference. "That's where the strong lead...
"While Flint has been an area of significant attention because of the catastrophe that has happened, it has not stopped him from moving our state forward and has not stopped our business leaders," Boji said. "You multitask."
During Snyder's interview with Bridge/Crain's, he often referenced a multi-page handout on Michigan successes, such as record-low unemployment and a roads funding plan. In addition, action in the state Legislature could mean a Detroit schools funding plan is in the home stretch.
"I don't think it's in anyone's interest for the governor to even consider resigning," said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, the state's business roundtable. "We need his leadership going forward."
When it comes to Flint, though, Snyder did not use the Mackinac stage to demonstrate that the water crisis is a "wake-up call" to fix the state's underinvestment in infrastructure, said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman.
"If I were him, I would have said, 'I've got 18 months. That's it. And I'm asking you to help me.' He didn't do that," Rossman-McKinney said.
The crises with Detroit schools are another opportunity to prove his mettle, several business leaders said.
His roughly $720 million proposal to restructure DPS — championed in the Senate by Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart — appears at risk of falling short over concerns from House Republicans and charter school supporters that a proposed education commission would restrict charters by allowing a mayoral-appointed task force to determine where in Detroit both traditional public schools and charter schools can open and close.
The House late last week approved legislation that would turn the proposed Detroit Education Commission into an advisory board rather than an entity with governing power.
Snyder says he continues to support the DEC, as does the Senate, but he's also cognizant that a compromise needs to get through the Legislature.
Snyder said he doesn't want to lose sight of the fact that DPS legislation would include hundreds of millions of dollars to help the district pay back operating debt and return control to a locally elected school board — both of which he believes would be seen as significant accomplishments.
John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Detroit-based Walbridge Aldinger Co., and co-chairman of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, called Snyder "a stalwart. He has been unbelievably supportive."
Regarding Flint, Kevin Hand, managing director of Birmingham-based consulting firm Conway MacKenzie Inc., and another conference attendee, said Snyder's administration appears to have somewhat mended fences with Flint city leaders, including Mayor Karen Weaver. That is in part due to Lt. Gov. Brian Calley's work in the city, he said.
Snyder himself will have to be more visible in Flint, Hand said. And progress on DPS, in particular, will have to be made soon to prevent attention lingering on the issue during the Legislature's summer recess and into lame-duck session this fall. If he does, Hand said, "it does give him the opportunity to get back to his agenda."
The Detroit chamber named infrastructure to its post-conference "to-do list," and Snyder has appointed a commission that is studying the state's infrastructure systems with the intention of recommending solutions this fall.
Snyder said he has not stopped working on his other policy priorities, including energy, criminal justice reforms, economic development and skilled trades.
"These have all been operating in parallel. They just haven't gotten the visibility" Flint and DPS have, he said. "Being a great state is more than the government. It's about how we can be partners. And you need the public-private partnerships to make that happen, and that's where the business community has a bigger role to play still."
Bridge Magazine senior writer Ron French contributed to this report.