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Mich. labor fight puts 'tough nerd' Snyder under partisan spotlight


Updated at 6:05 p.m. ET -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called himself "one tough nerd" in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, fashioning himself as a pragmatic problem-solver who wouldn't delve into the divisive partisanship that had come to define some of his fellow Republicans.

Related: Michigan House passes right-to-work legislation

But now that Snyder has signed historic legislation making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state, detractors will likely lump the governor with those firebrand Republicans, a distinction that he had long sought to avoid.

Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., tells NBC's Andrea Mitchell that the right-to-work legislation will bring more work to his state and may be a "positive" to unions over time.

“I didn’t do this to get into the politics of it,” Snyder said on MSNBC Tuesday afternoon of the fight. He said the issue reached a “critical mass” after organized labor unsuccessfully pushed a ballot initiative this November that would have established a right to collective bargaining in the Michigan constitution.

Snyder had previously said that pursuing this legislation was not on his agenda. But Republicans in the statehouse, whose majorities in the House and Senate will be narrower next year due to the 2012 elections, revived the long-dormant proposal with Snyder's eventual blessing.

"Once we had the support that we had, the next step was convincing the governor that this was a good thing," said state Republican Rep. Marty Knollenberg, a primary sponsor of the bill in the House. "It certainly started from the legislature, and then it was presented to the governor … I think he was sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude. It wasn’t on his priority list, as he indicated."

But Snyder did ultimately embrace the law, and signed it into law on Tuesday evening. Whether he would be able to preserve his reputation as a non-ideologue is an open question.

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus talks about the protests in Lansing, Michigan over the right-to-work legislation.

"I think he kind of decided he couldn’t string this out any longer. The idea that he had some sort of moment where he was converted in a blinding flash of light – I don’t think that’s the case," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the "Inside Michigan Politics" newsletter. "Here you’ve got Michigan looking, all of a sudden, far more extreme and aggressive that Scott Walker. Isn’t that ironic?"

Snyder enjoyed a 51 percent approval rating for Snyder in an early December EPIC-MRA poll; 48 percent of Michiganders said they had a negative impression of Snyder's performance as governor. The same poll found that Snyder had an edge over a generic Democratic challenger in 2014.

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But the state was much more divided on the question of whether the legislature should pursue right-to-work laws. While the EPIC-MRA poll found that Michiganders were generally supportive of the concept of those laws, they were evenly divided – 47 percent in favor, 46 percent against – on the question of whether Michigan should adopt such a law.

Dale G. Young / AP

Governor Rick Snyder presents his views on Michigan's future energy plans and how they merge with environmental and resource management issues at MSU's WK Kellogg Biological Station, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 near Hickory Corners, Mich.

Indeed, Snyder's decision to move forward with this proposal will inevitably invite parallels with GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's work to push legislation that stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights in early 2011. Like Michigan, Wisconsin is an industrial Midwestern state with a long tradition of unionism. And as with Wisconsin, Democrats and labor activists stormed the state capitol with unmet hopes of halting the changes to labor law.

“I think it’s important to make a distinction with Wisconsin and Ohio,” Snyder said on MSNBC. “That was about collective bargaining. That was about the relationship between employers and unions. This has nothing to do with that. Right-to-work has to do with the relationship between unions and workers.”

The bigger distinction might be the extent to which Michigan's fight was relatively bloodless. The fight in Wisconsin dragged out for days as Democrats in the state Senate went into hiding in Illinois to try to prevent a vote. And labor fought for months to recall Walker, an election which the Wisconsin governor survived this past June.

The right-to-work law moved much more quickly through Michigan's state government, giving opponents of the law barely any time to stop the bill. Even President Barack Obama's criticism of the law during a stop Monday in Detroit did little to halt the legislation's progress.

That sort of criticism could threaten to erode the reputation Snyder had built for himself during two years in office. Snyder, a former CEO of Gateway Computers, emerged from relative obscurity in 2010 to beat two well-known Republican challengers, Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Attorney General Mike Cox, in the primary on the strengths of his plain-spoken, jobs-oriented message.

Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers and Rev. Jesse Jackson share their reactions to the right-to-work legislation and the protests occurring because of it.

Snyder tried to burnish his bipartisan bona fides upon taking office by appointing former State House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat who'd unsuccessfully sought his party's gubernatorial nomination in 2010, as his state treasurer. He had sought to build a new bridge between Detroit and Canada over the opposition of some Republicans, and resisted a GOP initiative to ban domestic partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples before relenting.

Democrats and their allies in organized labor are sure now to redouble their efforts to beat Snyder in 2014, despite a relatively thin bench of challengers. More voters (40 percent) said they would be less likely to give Snyder a second term if he pursued right-to-work than those who said they would be more likely to re-elect the Republican.