Rick Snyder Explains Himself—Sort Of

In signing anti-union legislation, Michigan's moderate Republican governor inflamed the left and damaged himself politically. Was he really painted into a corner?

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Why did Michigan do it?

This week, one of America's most heavily unionized states became the 24th in the nation to enact "right-to-work" legislation that allows employees in union shops to opt out of paying dues or fees. It was a sudden move, pushed through the GOP-led lame-duck legislature without committee hearings, blindsiding Democrats and confounding political observers.

For years, the state's Republican governor, a moderate former businessman named Rick Snyder, had said he wasn't interested in a right-to-work law. Then, in a sudden about-face, he signed the pair of right-to-work bills proposed by GOP legislators. The bills came to Snyder just a month after a union-backed ballot initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state's constitution failed at the polls. By the time massive pro-labor protests were called and the issue hit the national radar, it was too late. Right-to-work was a fait accompli in Michigan almost before opponents knew what hit them.

The move has already done major political damage to Snyder, whose image as a bipartisan conciliator is at risk of turning into one as a right-wing bully. But Snyder -- the onetime CEO of the Gateway computer company, whose unorthodox 2010 campaign branded him "One Tough Nerd" -- was unrepentant when I spoke to him on Thursday.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "There are still people upset. We'll still have some issues. But the Capitol lawn is clear today." That is, the protesters have gone home. Now that he's signed the laws into being, there is nothing more protestors can do there.

The question on everyone's mind in Lansing is why Snyder flipped. He's on the record repeatedly, from before he was elected to just months ago, calling right-to-work "a divisive issue" and "not on my agenda." Snyder's technocratic posture had made him broadly popular; now, the liberal-leaning editorial page of the Detroit Free Press, which endorsed him and supported many of his reforms, is accusing him of a betrayal of trust.

But Snyder points out that he never said he was against right-to-work in principle. In 2010, when he was asked if he would sign right-to-work legislation that came across his desk, he answered, "I would sign it, but I don't put it on my agenda."

Now, Snyder says he always thought right-to-work was good policy. But he doesn't have a clear explanation for how an issue that was previously too divisive to consider suddenly became a priority. Essentially, he blames the unions for raising the issue with their ballot initiative, and says he tried and failed to broker a compromise between labor and the right-to-work advocates in the Republican legislature. When that didn't work, he concluded the divisive debate had already been opened, and the best way for him to quell it was to get it over with. "The way I viewed it was, the discussion was going on, so let's take a position now," he told me. "Let's get it resolved. And my position was that I believed it was appropriate to move forward."

But Democrats and labor leaders say they only pushed the ballot measure because they believed right-to-work was in the works and wanted to head it off. And they're not about to let Snyder put the issue behind him. They're preparing court challenges to the legislation, looking at options for yet more ballot initiatives and legislator recalls, and preparing to make Snyder's 2014 reelection bid very difficult.

The bills Snyder signed -- there are two, one for public employees other than police and firefighters, the other for private-sector workers -- go further than those signed by Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, both of whom sparked firestorms with attempts to limit public worker bargaining. In cutting off unions' money supply, Michigan's new laws go beyond bargaining, and they apply to both public and private workers. That won't go down well in the state that birthed the modern American labor movement, Democrats and even some Republicans say.

"How can you for two years tell people you're going to have one position and then reverse it, and jam it through the system, cutting out the public?" asked state Senator Gretchen Whitmer, the leader of the Democratic minority. "That tells me, number one, that it's political, nothing more, and number two, that they're afraid of the public. They're afraid the people of Michigan wouldn't want this." Republicans' majority in the House will be narrower beginning next month, and it's not clear they would have had the votes for right-to-work if they waited beyond the lame-duck session.

Whitmer said she previously enjoyed a good working relationship with Snyder, who had proved willing to anger the right: He vetoed a voter ID law, for example, and has been working to set up a state-based exchange to implement the Affordable Care Act, something other Republican governors have resisted in a symbolic protest against Obamacare. As a first-time candidate in 2010, Snyder rebuffed the pillars of the GOP establishment, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Tea Party to Michigan Right to Life.

But when Snyder decided to take up right-to-work, Whitmer found out from a statehouse reporter. She tried to crash the governor's closed press conference but was thrown out, she says, and now he won't return her calls. (Snyder denies this.)

The current fight has its roots, Snyder and his opponents agree, in the union-backed referendum on this year's ballot. Proposal 2 would have added collective bargaining rights to the state's constitution. Snyder met with labor leaders and implored them not to pursue the initiative, saying it would open a can of worms and put the issue front and center. (Top Michigan Democrats and national labor leaders also urged against it, multiple sources told me, viewing it as a distraction, an unnecessary risk, and a potentially dangerous overreach.)

Though President Obama easily won Michigan and Democrats made gains in the state House, the initiative failed by a wide margin, 57 percent to 42 percent. Its failure emboldened conservative activists who'd long favored anti-union legislation. Behind the scenes, conservative Republicans began rounding up votes in the state legislature, telling reluctant moderates it was time to get off the fence and threatening some with primary challenges if they didn't.

In early December, a group called the Michigan Freedom Fund began airing pro-right-to-work television and radio ads. The group's president, Greg McNeilly, is a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and managed the unsuccessful 2006 gubernatorial campaign of Republican nominee Dick DeVos, a former Amway CEO said to be a major force behind the current anti-labor push.

McNeilly acknowledged that DeVos is one of the Michigan Freedom Fund's backers and a "passionate advocate" of right-to-work. But he said DeVos is "not in any way our largest contributor." (My attempts to reach DeVos were unsuccessful.) Other conservative groups backing the right-to-work push include the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank, and the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative activist group backed by the Koch brothers.

When the unions put Proposal 2 on the ballot, it galvanized "a lot of people who were supportive of the issue of right-to-work philosophically but figured it was never practically an option in Michigan," McNeilly told me. "It was one of those things that was always on the wish list, but they figured it was never going to happen in the birthplace of Big Labor." Now, he boasted, the unions' plan hasn't just backfired -- "It's become a Waterloo for them. The symbolism of this happening in Michigan is a picture worth thousands of words."

Snyder doesn't put it in those triumphal terms, but he tells a similar story about the origins of the fight. "The real people that started this are the labor leaders themselves when they went ahead with the petition drive for Proposal 2," he told me.

The labor leaders, naturally, disagree. Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, said Proposal 2 was a reaction to rumblings about right-to-work that had already begun. He firmly believes the legislature would have taken up the issue with or without Proposal 2 on the ballot, and regrets only that it didn't pass.

"When [Snyder] came in as governor, he talked about being moderate and trying to unify people," King told me. "There were many instances where he said, 'This or that issue's not on my agenda.' And then the Tea Party legislature would pass bills, they would go to his desk, and he would sign them." King says he wouldn't have filed Proposal 2 if Snyder would have publicly pledged not to sign right-to-work legislation, but the governor refused to do that.

Now that he's signed right-to-work, Snyder casts it as a matter of freedom for workers and predicts it will improve the state's economic climate. He points to neighboring Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels passed right-to-work legislation in May and claims it has drawn companies to the state. (The overall evidence on whether right-to-work laws lead to job creation is mixed, and experts say it's far too soon to tell what effect the change has had in Indiana.)

But both Snyder's arm's-length explanation for how the legislation came about and the apparent backlash he's sparked made it hard not to conclude he'd been painted into a corner. I asked him if he felt he'd been forced into this situation against his will. He said it was a matter of leadership.

"I don't walk away from addressing any issue," Snyder said. "I hadn't decided to say, 'OK, let's go have divisiveness about right-to-work.' I wasn't seeking to have people go out and protest and create an issue. But as a practical matter, the environment was growing, and it was time to step up. I view that as a normal part of my position."

The state, meanwhile, is still reeling from the firestorm. "I'm 63 years old. I've been watching politics in this state for nearly 50 years. If you have told me even a week ago that Michigan was going to undertake right-to-work legislation, I would have said, 'You're drinking too much,'" said Craig Ruff, a Lansing-based policy analyst. "Republicans have been bobbing and weaving around this topic since the 1930s."

Ruff, a former Republican gubernatorial chief of staff, predicted the issue will damage Snyder, who he said has yet to fully explain his actions to his constituents. "He's burying deep in the ground a lot of history in Michigan," Ruff said. "I think the political leader has an obligation to say, 'Why now?'"