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Mackinac Island Follies

Not-So-Great Debate



MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – Rick Snyder is, without a doubt, the most thoroughly business-oriented governor in the modern history of this state. Without even trying, he talks like some sort of an executive trainer brought in to fire up the sales staff.

“Government? What’s the role of government? Not to spend money. It’s to give you great government service — customer service!” he told an enthusiastic crowd of mostly business types at the end of their Mackinac festival last Friday.

“It’s about teamwork! It’s about talent! It’s about cooperation and getting more cost-efficient!”

Indeed, few politicians have ever done as much to please Michigan business interests as Richard Dale Snyder, the 54-year-old boy from Battle Creek who earned three degrees from the University of Michigan and went on to make millions with Gateway computers, and then in venture capital.

Within months after taking office in 2011, Snyder got the Legislature to dramatically lower business taxes, in part by ruthlessly cutting education and taxing pensions.

Since then, he’s mostly battled on business’ behalf — not against the impotent Democrats — but against a pigheaded set of right-wing ideologues in the Legislature who have fought his attempts at transportation and infrastructure improvements. 

Business, indeed, has ample reason to love Snyder. You might have thought then that, say … the Pulte Group, would have hesitated to humiliate him during a conference that, this year, was staged as sort of a celebration of his successes.


Moments before Snyder took the stage to close out the Mackinac conference, word filtered through the crowd that Pulte had kicked the governor in the face by announcing it was moving from Bloomfield Hills to Atlanta.

Farewell, 300-plus jobs. (Dan Gilbert called Pulte’s CEO a “punk” over this.) Snyder himself didn’t know what to say, but tried to keep up his “relentless positive action” mantra.

“We need to grow. Let’s grow the state,” he said, perhaps reflecting that Georgia is about to pass Michigan in population.

Apart from that stunningly embarrassing moment, the governor had been enjoying what was largely a three-day love fest on Michigan’s premier resort island. Each year at the end of May, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce throws a three-day party, mislabeled a “conference,” at the ostentatious Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island — a place best known for the mingled smells of fudge and horseshit, equine and otherwise.

Besides business types, the event draws a swarm of lobbyists, politicians and media, all hungry for contacts — and overflowing amounts of free food and booze.

The chamber always brings in a bevy of national speakers, usually prominent media figures and politicians. This year’s gathering was more heavily right-wing than most; the speakers were presidential maybe-wannabe Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, the controversial education reformer, and Joe Scarborough.

The undercurrent theme was Michigan’s “comeback,” and whether by accident or design, the national types each in their own separate ways sent a semi-subtle message: Don’t let irrational ideological yahoos keep corporate Republicans from power. Scarborough lambasted Washington types like outgoing congressperson Michele Bachmann and new Senator Ted Cruz, and said the GOP’s rational future lies with its many forward-thinking governors. Former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee is no friend of teachers’ unions, but has no use for right-wing idiots who oppose the widely accepted Common Core Curriculum set of things all kids need to learn.

“People say we don’t like it when the federal government tells us what to do. I say, you really shouldn’t like the fact that China is kicking our butts right now,” she proclaimed.

The previous day, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, had noted that the Common Core standards are an initiative sponsored, not by the feds, but by the National Governors Association. Bush even met with some Michigan legislators to tell them dropping the Algebra II requirement was a bad idea. Reportedly, they indicated they couldn’t care less.

Mostly, however, Bush’s message was that sneering at immigration wasn’t smart, politically or economically.

“Immigrants are twice as likely to start business as American-born citizens,” he noted. He also made the surprisingly candid observation that Republicans seem to be sending the message to Hispanics and Asians that “we want your votes, but you can’t join our club.”

“I usually tried to win when I ran for office,” he said dryly. How much effect this will have on the legislators or those who own them is hard to say. What was clear was the vast majority of those at Mackinac were enthusiastically pro-Snyder.

However, there were a few interested parties on the fringes who weren’t.  One was Mark Schauer, the designated Democratic nominee for governor next year.

The other was Lon Johnson, the new Democratic state chair — a far more shrewd and savvy numbers-cruncher than his party has ever had in that job. With him was his talented wife Julianna Smoot, a nationally renowned Democratic fundraiser with close ties to the Obama White House.

They know there are millions in Michigan who don’t share the rah-rah enthusiasm of the chamber of commerce crowd for Snyderism, people for whom “relentless positive action” has had no positive effects they can see.

Johnson and Schauer mean to make a race of it next year. And it is just possible they gained a few converts this week.

Mainly, folks who used to work for the Pulte Group.


Not-So-Great Debate 


ONE OF THE FEW events at Mackinac to allow Democrats on stage was a mayoral debate among four of the many candidates for mayor of Detroit.

They included front-runners Benny Napoleon, the Detroit police chief turned Wayne County sheriff, and Mike Duggan, Wayne County fixer and Livonia native turned Detroiter.

State Rep. Fred Durhal, also known as a somewhat-owned subsidiary of Matty Moroun, and former state Rep. Lisa Howze rounded out the field. Tom Barrow, who has run and lost frequently, was off firing yet another futile lawsuit.

Krystal Crittendon, the fired former city corporation counsel, was said to be visiting her home planet.

My thought up till now has been that Napoleon, a likable, charismatic lifelong Detroiter, was the odds-on favorite. Detroiters were not likely, I reasoned, to pick a white machine politician who moved into Detroit to run for mayor.

However, I am now not so sure. Duggan delivered the best performance by far in this debate; Napoleon the worst. Duggan may have raised an eyebrow or two with his somewhat convoluted defense of his tenure at the Detroit Medical Center.

But overall, he came across as a confident man who projected a can-do attitude. Napoleon, on the other hand, came across like a somewhat hazy Johnny-one-note, whose only issue seemed to be crime. He has ideas worth considering there, and nobody doubts the need to get more cops on the street.

Yet there’s a hell of a lot more to being mayor of the most troubled big city in America, and Benny didn’t offer much.

Durhal possibly talked more than any of the others, but said nothing worth remembering for two minutes. Possibly the biggest disappointment was Howze, who was tough, aggressive and touted her CPA credentials. But she took herself out of the state of reality when she claimed Detroit didn’t need an emergency manager because the only real worry was the $2 billion in pension liabilities coming due soon.

As if the city can even handle that. 

Napoleon may have just had a bad outing and there are plenty of hard questions to be asked about Duggan, past and present. But at Mackinac Island, he was the only one who looked anything like a potentially successful mayor.


Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to