TIME Newsmaker Interview

Gov. Rick Snyder Explains How Detroit Was Saved

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder holds a rebate check for $1.2 million dollars to hand to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan during a news conference discussing the city of Detroit exiting from bankruptcy in Detroit
Rebecca Cook—Reuters Michigan Governor Rick Snyder holds a rebate check for $1.2 million dollars to hand to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan during a news conference discussing the city of Detroit exiting from bankruptcy in Detroit, on Dec. 10, 2014.

'It was a tough call to decide to go into bankruptcy'

Four years after taking office, the bookish Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder marked the completion of his toughest challenge Wednesday: saving the beleaguered city of Detroit from economic collapse.

While the city’s headwinds are from from over, it emerged from history’s largest municipal bankruptcy with $7 billion fewer obligations and identifying $1.7 billion that could be reinvested over the next decade. Snyder, an accountant and former venture capitalist elected to his second term as a Republican last month, says he now plans to share the Detroit turnaround story to the nation.

“I do want to tell the Michigan message more to the country, of our comeback, because a lot of people don’t recognize what a success we’ve had, what a success Detroit’s becoming. ” Snyder told TIME Wednesday as the paperwork restoring the city’s control over its own finances was being filed. “So it’s important to tell that story.”

But Snyder, who has been talked about as a potential Republican presidential contender, indicated he doesn’t have his eyes on the White House in 2016. “In terms of other offices, I’m very happy being governor,” he said.

Snyder said the country could learn from his philosophy of “relentless positive action,” which he describes as using the goodwill from solving one problem to solving the next.

“There’s too much ‘R’ and ‘D,’ there’s too much ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,” he said. “We need people to recognize that we’re all Michiganders, and in the country that we’re all Americans, and we should be focused on problem solving.”

“What would Washington be like if everyone agreed not to fight or blame one another,” he added. “There’d be a whole lot of time to get work done.”

Q: What worked in Detroit?

A: What we planned to have happened. Actually it worked well. It was an extremely difficult process. It was a tough call to decide to go into bankruptcy, but again, we set an aggressive timetable. And the good part is, it turned out very well. It was a difficult situation. And I always want to recognize that there are retirees making sacrifices, other people making sacrifices. But for the circumstances we were in, this is a very constructive, positive outcome that really positions the city to start a new chapter and grow.

Q: Are you already seeing the results?

A: There’s a lot of them, and it’s been ongoing. As we’ve gone through this process, developments, particularly in midtown and downtown Detroit continue to rebound. For example, Little Caesar’s just announced a new headquarters building, the first corporate headquarters building being built in a decade, in Detroit. That just got announced today. So, that’s the kind of good thing going on as part of the entertainment district area that they are developing.

I made a trip to China just a couple of weeks ago and it was really interesting. I’ve made four trips in four years to China to build relationships there and when I went four years ago and three years ago and last year, I’d get plenty in a negative context about Detroit. This trip it was largely positive questions and actually not a lot of questions about Detroit [finances], more general interest in Detroit and Michigan.

Q: How did you marshal the various interests in the city, in many cases convincing people to see their benefits cut for the sake of the city’s financial survival?

A: I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I also need to give a great credit to Kevin Orr, the judge, the mediators, there were a lot of great people, the mayor, everyone worked hard on a lot of these issues as time passed. There are at least two key things that you always need to focus on when you deal with a lot of these discussions—they also apply out of bankruptcy, anytime you’re dealing with these issues. The first one is, to get people to really agree on what are the facts. A lot of times people work on an issue or take a position that’s an emotional response or kind of a historical response, versus really digging into what’s the factual context. Because, in the bankruptcy for example, there simply were not the resources, so something had to be reduced, and how do you do that in a thoughtful way. And the second piece is building trust with people, getting people to agree that difficult things may need to be done, but here’s a more constructive way to do it where it’s not about who wins and who loses, but how do you create an environment where people can be successful together over a longer period of time.

Q: Is the city out of the woods yet? How confident are you that in can survive any challenges that come its way.

A: I wouldn’t use the word ‘any,’ because you could think of circumstances that could put any community or any place in the country in difficulty depending on how severe it was. But in the context of saying, now is it in a comparable fashion or in a potentially successful fashion like many other urban areas, it’s clearly well positioned for that. And I say that under two different criteria. One is from a process point of view, that we’ve had a $7 billion reduction in liabilities, about $1.7 billion in reinvestment resources being identified over the next 10 years under a base plan for the city, a financial review commission that’s there to provide an oversight role like what happened in DC and New York City, to help make sure the city government is fulfilling their role responsibly in terms of budgeting. So those are all process/procedural things that are helpful. And then from a people point of view, we have a mayor and city council that have been good partners and successful partners on a number of efforts already and they’re continuing. So I think that’s set the framework for success and the ability to say that people are focusing now on the growth of Detroit.

Q: Now that you have this done, what are your next priorities?

A: A couple of them are wrapping up. We’re working on transportation funding right now, transportation infrastructure funding in the lame duck right now. I’d love to get that done. That’s something I’ve been calling for for a couple of years. But beyond that, I’m exciting about where Michigan’s poised. We’re now a top-tier state. We need to get that message out to the rest of the country. And in terms of priorities, I think we have a huge opportunity to lead the nation in filling skilled trades jobs and re-establishing a career/technical education track in our state second-to-none. Because if you stop to look at one of the great challenges you are seeing now with companies and organizations, they’re out looking for people with the right skills, and we have a lot of people, talented people, looking for work that need those skills. So the jurisdiction that does the best at leading in that is going to have a big advantage. And Michigan is going to be number one in doing that.

Q: When you say skilled trades jobs, are you referring to manufacturing? Is manufacturing coming back?

A: Yeah, and we have been. We’re number one in adding manufacturing jobs and it’s coming back strong. But we also need to redefine the skilled trades, because historically people tended to think of them as the welder, plumber, electrician, and those are great professions, but if you’re in manufacturing today, you’re a skilled tradesperson most likely. If you’re in agriculture today, you’re driving a $250,000 tractor, a $500,000 combine, you’re a skilled tradesperson. So, this is a very pervasive issue. A lot of times we overly-encourage people, and tell all of our young people to go get a university degree when in many cases, they would be just as well off if they’d have looked at a career tech-ed track and being successful there. So we need to have two parallel tracks that are both well-respected and honorable.

Q: You saw what happened in Ferguson and the national conversation that has erupted. What are your views on it?

A: What happened in Ferguson is very troubling, in terms of the whole situation, and it shows that there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of relationship-building. So I think it really highlights that people thought improvement had happened, but that there’s much more work to be done. And I’m proud to say in Michigan that we’ve been proactive on that. I don’t take it for granted. That’s something you have to actively work on and build those relationships. And we’ve been doing that in a number of our urban areas. I’m proud of the work, again in Detroit, but also in communities like Flint and Saginaw in particular. We’ve spent a lot, both of my time, but also some of our key departments in state government, the Michigan state police, human services being proactive, trying to partner with the local community itself, the leadership there, the local criminal justice system, the courts, the faith-based community, talking about these issues and how do we make sure we’re building bridges, building relationships that are deep enough to be prepared in case you have one of these terrible events happen.

Q: You’re looking to tell Michigan’s story to the nation, but what about you? Are you looking to take on a national role, perhaps a 2016 campaign?

A: As I said, I’m very active on some great next steps for Michigan, in terms of this career-tech education track, some huge initiatives. I also what to get out—I do want to tell the Michigan message more to the country, of our comeback, because a lot of people don’t recognize what a success we’ve had, what a success Detroit’s becoming. So it’s important to tell that story. But in terms of other offices, I’m very happy being governor. What I would say to you is, if you look towards the future in 2016, the best candidate will be a governor most likely in my view, and should be a governor.

Q: Any particular governor?

A: The good part is, there’s a strong group of Republican governors. If you look at the Midwest in particular, there’s a great group there. It’s good to see that this is where good things are happening in government.

Q: What’s your message to Washington and the country in general?

A: This is actually a subset of the bigger Michigan story. In the public sector in particular, but in our political culture, we need to rise above politics. There’s too much ‘R’ and ‘D,’ there’s too much ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ We need people to recognize that we’re all Michiganders, and in the country that we’re all Americans, and we should be focused on problem solving. And that’s where I’ve used my philosophy of ‘relentless positive action’ for four years now and it’s been very successful. And I tell people: ‘I don’t fight with anybody. I don’t blame anybody. You didn’t hire me to do that. You hired me to solve problems.’ And if you solve these problems, it creates a much more positive atmosphere to solve the next problem, and that’s how you get on a very strong comeback path which is what we’re seeing in Detroit and in Michigan.

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