LANSING, Mich. – Last year at this time, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was boasting about the state's financial accomplishments, toying with a presidential run, and delivering a State of the State address that said his administration would ensure all Michigan residents could be pulled along by Michigan's "river of opportunity."
But as Snyder prepares to deliver his sixth State of the State address on Tuesday, his political capital has plummeted, the state is grappling with what could be a billion-dollar mistake with incalculable consequences for human lives, and his river analogy is particularly unfortunate in light of a state-appointed emergency manager's 2014 decision to save money by temporarily drawing Flint's drinking water from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. That move, followed by other state errors, has led to a public health crisis, allegations of a state government coverup, and Saturday's declaration of a federal emergency in Flint by President Obama.
Amid calls for his resignation, stunning vitriol directed at him through social media and protests outside his Ann Arbor home Monday and planned in front of the Capitol on Tuesday, Snyder will deliver one of the most closely watched State of the State addresses in Michigan history.
"I can't think of another governor that really had this level of crisis at a State of the State," said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a veteran Lansing public relations and crisis communications consultant and CEO of public relations firm Truscott Rossman.
"It's probably the most important speech he will give in his entire public career."
Ideally, Snyder would invite to the address some of the people who helped expose the lead-contamination crisis, such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Children's Hospital and drinking water researcher Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, Rossman-McKinney said. He should publicly acknowledge them and thank them for forcing action by his administration, she said.
Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's outgoing chief of staff, said Friday he expects the Republican governor will confront the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water early and prominently in his address, setting out a comprehensive plan for addressing not only the health-related issues in Flint, but the infrastructure problems there and in other cities around the state.
Snyder has publicly apologized for the state's role in the catastrophe. But given that complaints about the taste, smell and appearance of Flint's drinking water began shortly after the switch in April 2014 and continued for 18 months, many citizens aren't buying Snyder's claim that he wasn't aware of the seriousness of the health issue until about Oct. 1. of last year.
"Were they getting their information from Pluto?" asked Mark Grudt, a construction worker who lives in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. "We've known there's a problem in Flint for over a year," and "had this been an affluent community, it wouldn't have gotten this far."
Matt Friedman, co-founder of public relations firm Tanner Friedman, said Snyder — a former computer company executive and venture capitalist who was a political novice when he took office in 2011 — should prepare for Tuesday by taking a page from the crisis-management guide for corporate CEOs.
Snyder needs to lay out the facts of the crisis, provide reassurance by telling what is being done to help and to assure nothing similar can happen in the future, and express concern for the affected people of Flint, Friedman said.