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GOP schism deepens after Flint water crisis

The Detroit News

Credit good ol’ politics for the widening split separating Michigan’s top two Republicans.

The legal jeopardy posed by the Flint water crisis—and controversial decisions affecting special interests—are exposing Attorney General Bill Schuette’s unmistakable desire to succeed Rick Snyder as governor come 2018.

Not that the AG will say so. The growing record of disagreements between Schuette and Snyder is producing a special kind of political fallout: It’s positioning the AG for the state’s top office, and sometimes doing it at the expense of the sitting governor.

Personality differences don’t help. Snyder, an accountant-turned-CEO, is a nominally partisan, data-driven manager who delegates to experts trusted to do their jobs. Sometimes they do, as in Detroit’s epic bankruptcy. And sometimes they don’t, as in the Flint water crisis.

Schuette is more relationship-driven and more deeply invested in Republican Party politics, statewide and nationally. He’s an old(er) school pol who remembers names, pours coffee at small-town fundraisers and isn’t afraid to play a little hard ball.

The AG’s latest move is his decision this week to decline “to provide counsel” for Snyder’s planned appeal of a court ruling. The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the state to reimburse public school employees $550 million for unconstitutionally deducting health care benefits from their paychecks.

Snyder says repaying the sum would have negative implications for the state retirement system. Maybe so. That didn’t stop Team Schuette from concluding the case is a loser—kind of like Snyder’s decision to abandon the AG’s challenge to new federal mercury rules.

There’s more. The governor pushed an increase in the state gas tax last year as part of the roads package that voters rejected by a 4-to-1 margin. Schuette, a regular commuter between Lansing and his Midland home, opposed the increase and put himself on the right side of the electoral blowout.

Imagine that. There’s not much fraternal harmony between Michigan’s top two Republicans. The Flint water crisis is only making things worse. Evidence of incompetence at all levels of government is providing grist for civil and criminal investigations. The AG is using it—to do his job, and to (theoretically) inoculate his political future from Republican complicity in the mess.

Good luck.  Like it or not, the Flint fiasco is associated with Republicans because a Republican occupies the governor’s office, because Republicans control the Legislature and because the Republican-backed emergency manager law is blamed for decisions precipitating the crisis.

Investigators, even Schuette himself, unambiguously say neither the governor nor his inner circle is excluded from their investigations. That’s a clear signal that partisan kinship is little comfort in a highly charged case fraught with politics, race and intense media scrutiny.

If Schuette’s de facto separation from Snyder gains traction, Schuette will be the Republican nominee for governor two years from now—and his politicking as AG will be one reason why.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. You can read his essays online here. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan. 

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