Susan J. Demas: Unhappy Times for Former Rivals Snyder and Bernero

This column ran in Dome Magazine.

Six years ago, Virg Bernero and Rick Snyder were both underestimated hopefuls for governor.

As candidates packed for the 2010 Mackinac Conference for Public Policy, Lansing insiders assumed the race would come down to then-House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford) and Attorney General Mike Cox.

But a lot can change between May and August.

On the Democratic side, the Lansing mayor had a considerably easier task to win the nomination, as Dillon was his only competition (Lt. Gov. John Cherry bowed out early). But Dillon had a big Achilles’ heel: He’s anti-abortion and anti-embryonic stem cell research, which doesn’t play well with a statewide Democratic primary electorate. Somehow, Dillon’s team seemed wholly unprepared for the attack.

Bernero stood ready to exploit that weakness and did. Once his TV ads hitting Dillon on choice landed, it was game over. Rarely have I seen poll numbers move so fast.

Snyder, the former Gateway CEO, had the considerably more difficult challenge being a complete unknown in a five-way GOP primary. Spending a chunk of his personal fortune on catchy “One Tough Nerd” commercials early on helped him stand out.

While top contenders Cox and then-U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland) bloodied each other, Snyder stayed positive and wooed the woefully underrepresented moderate wing of the Republican Party. His endorsements from former Gov. Bill Milliken and former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz sent a big signal (and are also why many voters never expected Snyder to sign right-wing legislation on abortion and Right to Work).

When August 3 rolled around, Bernero gave Dillon a 17-point pounding and Snyder won his primary by almost 10 points.

The rest is history. It was clear that the race was already over, as voters blamed term-limited Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the decade-long recession and a national Tea Party wave was building. But Bernero, with his “America’s Angriest Mayor” populist schtick, was a pathetically weak nominee, and helped his party get absolutely annihilated down-ballot. It’s a hole Democrats are still trying to climb out of, particularly in the Legislature.

As for the two nominees themselves, the years following the 2010 election have not been kind. Both Snyder and Bernero won their respective re-elections, which is something. But they’re now at the epicenter of festering scandals.

Snyder will forever be known for the Flint water crisis. His balance-sheet approach to governance looks to be an abject failure. Protecting people is the bare minimum that government is supposed to do. But his administration was painfully slow to act when people raised alarm bells over their water –– and, at times, was openly contemptuous of them, as emails have shown.

The governor hasn’t helped himself by failing to convince the GOP-controlled House to pass a substantial aid package for the battered city. Snyder has largely avoided public events in Flint. And he’s burning through taxpayers’ money on legal fees regarding the crisis at an astounding rate of $6,500 per day.

Meanwhile, Bernero has his own problems, like constantly feuding with City Council members.

He’s also stayed mum as the city of Lansing awarded a hefty $160,000 severance to former City Attorney Janene McIntyre, whose contract amendment somehow can’t be found. Several of the Lansing State Journal’s Freedom of Information Act requests have hit a brick wall. And interim city attorney, F. Joseph Abood, recently won a $30,000 raise.

For awhile, it looked like Bernero would be mayor for life. But it’s not clear he can hang onto his job next year, especially if Council President Judi Brown Clarke or state Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing) challenge him. Perhaps Bernero won’t run at all.

Snyder, of course, is legally barred from seeking another term in 2018, which is probably for the best. He’s the third-most unpopular governor in the country, and it would take a miracle for his numbers to recover in time.

And so this year, the buzz at Mackinac will be all about who can replace them. Snyder and Bernero still have plenty of work left ahead of them, but the political class has already moved on.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.