With the national spotlight on Detroit becoming the largest U.S. city in history to declare bankruptcy, there also was growing attention last week on the politician at the center of the crisis: Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Less than three years after the former high-tech executive came out of nowhere to defeat four seasoned officeholders in the Republican primary and then win the governorship in a landslide, Snyder now inarguably is a national political figure.
Throughout the weekend, the 55-year-old governor was featured on CBS's "Face the Nation" and other national news outlets explaining how Detroit's near-$16 billion in unfunded liabilities made his decision to seek bankruptcy inevitable.
There even has been mention of Snyder as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, although even admirers of the governor admit he first must win what is shaping up as a hard-fought battle for re-election in 2014.
Even before Detroit's bankruptcy filing, Snyder had overseen controversial policy decisions which made him both a hero to conservatives nationwide and an archenemy of public-sector unions.
In a 2012 interview with this reporter, Snyder recalled the situation he faced upon succeeding two-term Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in January 2011.
"We had a terrible last decade," he said. "We were ranked 16th in per-capita income in 2000 and we dropped to 36th in 2010."
In his initial budget, Snyder enacted a series of pro-growth measures and restrained state-government spending. Snyder's budget, passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, slashed $1.8 billion in spending and eliminated the state's complicated business tax in favor of a flat tax.
Those actions have paid off, as the state's economy has begun to recover from the depths of the 2008 recession.
When Snyder took office in 2011, the state's unemployment rate was 10.7 percent, and by June of 2013, the rate had fallen to 8.7 percent. The state has seen a $1.5 billion budget deficit turn into a $400 million budget surplus in 2013.
But in the past year, Snyder engaged in several high-profile battles, overseeing the taxing of pensions for retired state employees living in the state and signing a measure giving more power to emergency managers of localities — a move which made possible Detroit's bankruptcy filing — after an earlier version of the law was rejected in a voter initiative.
But by far, Snyder's most controversial move came last December, when he made union bastion Michigan the 24th state to become a right-to-work state.
A day after signing legislation that made union dues voluntary, Snyder told this reporter: "It's exciting. Not only is it about more and better jobs, but it's also an important philosophical point. It's pro-worker, giving workers the freedom to choose."
Snyder says he prefers the term "freedom to choose" over "right-to-work" to describe the law.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said there have been two recent major assaults on unions —Snyder's efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker's reforms requiring some public employees to pay a portion of their pension and health benefits.
So it is no surprise that Michigan's governor has become a top target of organized labor.
According to the most recent Public Policy Polling survey of likely Michigan voters, Snyder trails former congressman and likely Democratic nominee Mark Schauer by a margin of 42 percent to 38 percent.
Some political experts see a chance of Snyder — if he is re-elected — becoming a Republican presidential hopeful in 2016.
Assessing Snyder as a potential presidential hopeful, Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall College professor and Pennsylvania's leading political pollster, told Newsmax: "I watched quite a lot of him over the weekend as he explained the Detroit bankruptcy. I was impressed . He sounded savvy. And he might just play in an industrial state like Pennsylvania, as it is similar to Michigan. It's just too early to tell."
Bill Ballenger, editor of the much-read "Inside Michigan Politics," said there "has been speculation about a Snyder [presidential] bid raised recently. And, as a businessman and first-time officeholder, he is an unorthodox, unusual figure. In a Republican Party that is increasingly conservative, his stands on public-employee pensions, right-to-work, and now Detroit are popular."
But, Ballenger quickly added, "Realistically, I rate his chances as near zero. But he also has some problems with the conservative bases. These include his call for Medicaid expansion — which has set up a real clash between the governor and the Republican leaders in the state Senate — and his call for a taxpayer-funded 'Bridge to Canada.' This is really upsetting to the tea party here."
Although Snyder has signed pro-life legislation into law, Ballenger and other Michigan observers note that he rarely discusses cultural issues and is not close to his state's pro-family activists.
"At present, Snyder would only be numbered on a list of long shots, but he is an intriguing long-shot," historian David Pietrusza, author of three best-selling books on presidential elections, told Newsmax.
"Although a governor and a Michigan-born corporate-type like Mitt Romney, Snyder can point to a more conservative tenure and a far less patrician background," Pietrusza said. "He seems to be a planner, quite steady and long-range in his moves, as witnessed by his having already made the obligatory foreign visits to Afghanistan and Israel."
"Unions will hate him," Pietrusza said, "but then again, they will hate any Republican worth nominating. His potential to swing Michigan into the GOP is a plus. The Detroit situation remains a question mark."
For his part, Snyder and his top staff dismiss any queries about a bid for national office and insist he wants only to remain in his present job in Lansing.
As he told this reporter in December, "Tell the people that I'm happy being governor, but I appreciate those kind thoughts."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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