A Conversation with Rick Snyder

Sep 1, 2011

So, who is Rick Snyder, really? I spent a half hour talking to the governor yesterday, the first long conversation I’ve had with him since he took office exactly eight months ago.

Since then, he’s gotten more through the legislature than the last governor did in eight years. He’s also been the subject of nasty criticism and a recall attempt.

I was curious about a lot of things, one of which being whether he still likes this job he worked so hard at winning a year ago.

The answer, so far as I can tell, is that he loves it. “I’m not sure whether I’m an optimistic pragmatist or a pragmatic optimist,” he told me. “What I am is someone who believes in relentless positive action. You make a list of goals, you prioritize, and you get them done,”  he said. Essentially, Snyder seems to have one goal.

Making Michigan work again. Revitalizing the economy and changing the culture. He doesn’t have any interest in ideology, either of the left or the right. He has no use for labels. “It’s all about solutions,” he said, and he clearly means it.

When you ask Republican politicians to name their political heroes, these days, most of them start with Ronald Reagan.

When I asked this governor, he says he doesn’t really have any, though he does admire Bill Milliken for what he did for the environment, and the late President Ford for his integrity.

One gets the sense that he is focused on the present, not the past. Most politicians tend to be all over the place, their concentration flitting from this to that. Bill Rustem, Snyder’s advisor for strategy, told me a few months ago that the governor’s energies are concentrated like a laser beam on one thing -- the economy.

The governor told me that he made up his mind in high school that he wanted to earn three college degrees, which he did, and then have three careers. The first in business, where he wanted to have fun and make enough money so he could be financially secure; the next in some phase of public service, and then finally to be a professor, to share knowledge and know-how on an individual basis.

He’s now fifty-three, and has stuck to those goals, just as he is sticking to the ten-point plan he outlined when he was running. “It is an honor to be governor of Michigan,” he told me, “but the voters hired me based on the things I said I would do,” and he carries those points around on an I-pad every day.

He’s aware that a lot of people are angry at him. He’s heard the nasty criticism, and admits “some of it always gets to you,” but said, “you have to accept that’s part of democracy.”

The governor cheerfully concedes that nobody does everything perfectly. He thinks his administration hasn’t always done its best at communicating the reasons for its goals. And he clearly underestimated “the power one special interest with money can have,” meaning the Ambassador Bridge. But overall, my sense was that Snyder is, to use FDR’s famous term, a truly “happy warrior.”

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what he plans to do next.