Only a year ago, Rick Snyder began his second term as Michigan governor promoting the same achievements that had propelled him to victory in 2014: The state was at last in the midst of an economic comeback, and Detroit had emerged from bankruptcy.
Now the water crisis gripping Flint threatens to overshadow nearly everything else Snyder has accomplished, and the governor’s annual State of the State address has become perhaps the most important speech of his career.
The Republican has little choice but to devote much of Tuesday’s address to the emergency, which has put Flint families at risk for lead exposure and engulfed his administration with criticism from across the nation.
"Right now, it’s everything," Lansing-based Republican consultant Tom Shields said of the Flint disaster. "People will forget about what he did to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy and change taxes and everything else" if the Flint situation is not handled correctly.
The images of an impoverished city where no one dares to drink the tap water have put Snyder on the defensive and forced him to step up his efforts to help. The governor, who has apologized for regulatory failures and for an underwhelming initial response, has rejected calls for his resignation.
In recent weeks, he declared a state of emergency, pledged another round of unspecified state funding, activated the National Guard to help distribute lead tests, filters and bottled water, and successfully sought federal assistance. But to many people, those steps took way too long.
He plans to offer more ideas during his televised speech to the GOP-led Legislature, including more money and proposals to provide health services to kids with elevated lead levels and to prevent water shutoffs if bills go unpaid. He is also considering whether to release emails related to the crisis, which began when Flint, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, switched its water source in 2014 to save money.
Shields said it is not in Snyder’s nature to show emotion publicly.
"He doesn’t want to feel your pain. He wants to cure it," Shields said.
Michigan’s top environmental regulator has resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the water.
The fiasco has bruised Snyder, a former venture capitalist and computer executive who took office in 2011 billing himself as a practical decision-maker and a "tough nerd." When he sought the state’s top job, he touted his experience as a turnaround artist committed to making government work better for people.
He cannot run again under term limits and has strayed from conservative orthodoxy on some issues, such as expanding Medicaid despite his party’s stand against the health care overhaul and vetoing anti-abortion and gun-rights legislation.
His top achievements include overhauling taxes, signing right-to-work laws in organized labor’s backyard and enacting a road-funding package.
Democrats have opposed many of Snyder’s most sweeping laws, including a new emergency manager measure under which his administration has made budget decisions for struggling cities and school districts. They say what happened in Flint is an indictment of the GOP’s promise to run government like a business.
"The state of our state is not strong when residents are being poisoned by their tap water," House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.
The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate, and the state attorney general has opened his own probe, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct.
Snyder still has time to make it right, according to Shields.
"This administration was slow to act on the information they had, not realizing exactly what had happened. That is right now one of the larger problems, and they’re trying to play catch up," he said. "How this happened to begin with is frankly not important right now. It’s how you move forward in getting people’s lives back to normal in the city of Flint."
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