By CHEYNA ROTH
Capital News Service
LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder has a track record of trying to run Michigan like a business with a focus on jobs and the economy, but when it comes to tackling cultural or social justice issues, Snyder has a self-acknowledged history of staying away.
“I don’t spend much time on social issues,” Snyder said in an interview with Capital News Service correspondents. “I spend the vast bulk of my time on economic development, making Michigan better, public safety, all the other issues, because I think that’s typically what our citizens are most concerned with.”
Social issues, particularly same-sex marriage and the question of whether business owners can deny service to people with whom they have religious differences, have been in the spotlight recently.
Michigan’s constitutional ban on gay marriage is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the legislature is considering a bill to let businesses turn away customers for religious reasons that is similar to a recent law causing a backlash in Indiana.
Michigan legislators have also introduced several bills concerning abortion this term, including one that would repeal the current prohibition of abortion coverage by insurance companies without the purchase of a separate add-on.
Snyder recently told reporters he would veto a bill like Indiana’s — known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — without a companion bill prohibiting housing and hiring discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But generally, Snyder has taken a back-seat role on such issues. He told the Capital News Service that he opposes discrimination, but he declined to take a stand on how the Supreme Court should rule on Michigan’s gay marriage ban.
“I have personal views, but as governor of the state of Michigan we have a constitutional amendment that was in place that’s being challenged,” Snyder said. “The Supreme Court’s going to decide the issue, and I’ll follow the laws appropriately based on the decision.”
Snyder’s office distributed over 250 press releases last year. Two of them addressed gay rights – one stating that same-sex couples wed on Mar. 22 were legally married and the other a brief comment following the Court of Appeals ruling on same-sex marriage issued Nov. 6.
Employment issues were the primary topic of 19 press releases, and Detroit was the primary topic of 14. Abortion was not a primary topic for any press release.
Social activist groups have noticed Snyder’s lack of enthusiasm for these types of issues, and some disagree with his business-only mentality.
“The governor is thoughtful, but is driven by a notion that the state can be run like a business, and a belief that the market trickles down to support a robust economy,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for ACLU of Michigan. “That has never been the case. A successful governor has to address social welfare as well as corporate welfare.”
Ed Rivet, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan, said the governor addresses social issues in a “very cerebral manner.” Although Rivet believes Snyder will discuss the issues when he has to, he rarely embraces the debate.
Snyder initially ran on a self-funded campaign with only a few donors and without the endorsement of major state interest groups, including traditional conservative groups, said Matt Grossmann, professor of political science at Michigan State University. This has put him in a unique position to remain independent of social issue pressures.
“It’s certainly a benefit to get elected without oweing your election to major interest groups or a political party. It means you have a little bit more freedom to maneuver,” Grossmann said.
Snyder doesn’t avoid social issue completely. In his 2015 State of the State address, he asked for continued dialogue about marriage and civil rights issues for gay and lesbian residents in addition to talking about increasing jobs, restructuring the departments of Human Services and Community Health, recycling, the comeback of Detroit and public safety.
When asked at the Macomb County Republican Party Lincoln Dinner in 2013 about making Michigan more LGBT friendly as a way to promote business in Michigan, Snyder said it was an issue the legislature could discuss, and he believed discussions to be “a fine act to take.”
In an interview with the Capital News Service, Snyder said he will continue to call on the legislature to expand the state’s civil rights act, but he did not offer any other methods of promoting a change.
Some activist groups would prefer a stronger stance on social issues.
“He’s entitled to set his own priorities,” Rivet said. “However, he is governor of all of Michigan, and all of its issues. He is not entitled to ignore social issues or treat them as unimportant.”
Although the ACLU appreciates that Snyder is not a social rabble-rouser, Weisberg said, it isn’t possible to separate social issues from economic development.
“A focus on jobs alone while ignoring important social justice issues will not result in a better, more robust economy that benefits all citizens,” Weisberg said in an email.
When asked about the moral authority his role gives him surrounding the issue of equality, Snyder said his focus is on jobs.
“You have to set your priorities as a governor,” he said. “So you have to say ‘where can you have the highest and best use of your resources?’ And you have limited resources, so the way I view it is, I focus on more and better jobs and a future for our kids.”
By CHEYNA ROTH