Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Democrats have no one


— Nobody is saying this yet. But could it be that the political juggernaut called Rick Snyder is running out of gas?

For all the governor’s constant repetition of “relentless positive action,” his legislative priorities are bogged down. His proposal to increase gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to fix state roads was sneered at by his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

Though there is now some discussion of raising the sales tax, it is far from clear that lawmakers will vote any new road money at all.

The Legislature flatly refused Snyder’s request to create a health care exchange to help citizens find options. Nor are they willing so far to go along with another Snyder priority - accepting an offer to add nearly half a million uninsured to Medicaid, even though Michigan would never pay more than 10 percent of the total cost.

And last week, when the governor proposed a major overhaul of medical coverage that would drastically limit benefits for those catastrophically injured in auto accidents, his proposal was savagely attacked by one of his party’s senior statesmen, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, himself an accident victim.

Not only did he call it “an embarrassment,” but he added that if the example of his own suffering helps beat the governor’s proposal, “then some good will come of it.”

Plenty of governors have had trouble with legislatures before, even ones controlled by their own party. But what appears to be happening now seems to stand in stark contrast to Snyder’s first year, when his legislative successes came close - by Lansing standards - to a wildfire shooting through dry grass.

Business taxes were dramatically slashed and overhauled. Lawmakers agreed to a politically risky tax on pensions. Education funding was cut to make up the remaining shortfall.

During his second year, the governor’s record was more mixed, but he was still very much Lansing’s dominant personality.

True, he seemed to bow more to the demands of a GOP legislative majority that was considerably more right on social issues than he was - or at least was perceived to be.

Snyder agreed to new, seemingly petty restrictions on teachers’ unions and signed a bill to repeal the motorcycle helmet law, which, from a cost-benefit analysis, defied common sense.

But when lawmakers refused to even vote on a new bridge across the Detroit River, the governor shrugged, found a legal loophole, and made a deal with Canada to build it anyway.

Then last December, during the most frenzied lame-duck session in memory, he reversed course and supported Michigan becoming a right-to-work state, possibly because he sensed that the bill would be passed in any event.

Had that happened without his backing, he would have no choice other than sign - or veto it and face open revolt in his own party and a possible primary challenge.

The governor did, however, successfully exact a price for outlawing the union shop: GOP lawmakers reluctantly agreed to approve and fund a new Rapid Transit Authority for the Detroit metropolitan region. If voters in Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties fund it, a network of fast buses with their own special lanes could be zipping commuters throughout the area and out to Detroit Metropolitan Airport as early as late 2016.

So far this year, however, the road has been rockier for the 54-year-old governor, a self-made multimillionaire who never took part in politics until he decided to run for governor.

Snyder was widely praised for his decision in March to appoint an emergency manager for Detroit. Initially, his choice of bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr was also seen as a positive.

But that was followed by embarrassment when it turned out that the man he hired to get Detroit’s finances in order had unpaid liens on his house. How, some wondered, could that governor’s team not have thoroughly vetted the man to whom they were giving more power than any elected leader in Detroit history?

Soon after, the man of relentless positive action found himself relentlessly dodging a bigger issue: Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, who many see as a national disgrace.

While the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in March in two cases involving same-sex marriage, Agema posted a hate-filled and mostly untrue rant against gay people on Facebook.

Though some called on the national committeeman to resign, Snyder was stonily silent. Finally, when cornered by a reporter April 8, he said “I’m not going to get in the middle of all that.”

How all this will play out is far from certain. Those who once defended the governor as a secret moderate are now silent.

Ironically, his move to the right has likely hurt his chances to get legislation passed, at least for now. Democrats have been so weak in the Legislature, especially the Senate, that they are irrelevant,

Virtually all the infighting has been between the GOP governor and GOP legislators. Two years ago, Snyder might have gotten some bills through with a minority of Republican votes, plus substantial support from Democrats.

Now, few Democrats are willing to support the governor on anything. But if you think that means Snyder is toast when he runs for re-election next year, think again.

True, Michigan hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate for President since 1988, or re-elected a GOP senator since Richard Nixon was walloping George McGovern years before that.

But as unpopular as the governor may be, Democrats have no candidate to oppose him. Some are pushing former congressman Mark Schauer, though he doesn’t seem eager to make the race.

You can’t beat someone with no one. Right now, as angry as they may be, no one is precisely who the Democrats have.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.