Dearborn fire inspector Laura Ridenour (right) talks with Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder (left) as Mark Andrew, of the Dearborn Firefighters political action committee, looks on. Snyder, a former Dearbornite, was in town for a fundraiser last Wednesday.
By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — He’s a millionaire venture capitalist with big political aspirations, but not too long ago, Rick Snyder might have been the guy you saw at the local bowling center, searching for a suitable house ball.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate Snyder was back in his two-time hometown last week to meet with supporters, talk policy and do a little reminiscing. At a fundraiser spaghetti dinner last Wednesday at Park Place, 23400 Park, which was organized by his in-laws, Dearborn residents Pete and Kathy Kerr, the candidate outlined his guiding principles while also greeting friends and family.
Snyder advocated for a “customer service” government that is operationally nimble and more responsive to citizen’s needs, while deriding the current bureaucratic status quo as “broken.” One of the primary reasons he decided to join the race, he said, was because he was disappointed that all of the other prospective candidates were career politicians.
But the majority of his speech was reserved for policyspeak, not political red meat.
“I don’t like to focus on the negatives,” Snyder said, “because I think as a state that we just have so many positive, wonderful resources we should be talking about instead.”
Since joining the race early, Snyder has raised his profile – and his polling – through a series of ubiquitous campaign ads featured on big-buy, or high-cost, slots on most major local TV and radio networks. The spots cast him as “One Tough Nerd,” highlighting his fast and often achievements from a middle-class childhood in Battle Creek to his widespread success in the business world.
While pundits have differed on the effectiveness of the ad – some have called it smart while others question whether it will resonate with the party’s base, a typical bellwether in the all-important primary elections – it is indisputable that more people know Snyder now than did in January.
Snyder used this tableau to highlight a greater point about how he would take business practices, like effective marketing, and apply them to government functions.
“How many people here have seen the ‘One Tough Nerd’ ads?” he asked, as almost all of the 130 people in attendance raised their hands.
“Good, the marketing plan is working,” he said with a knowing nod, continuing, “but these are the types of things we need to be doing as a state. We need to be more innovative and we need to be more strategic in our planning.”
But the evening wasn’t just another stop on his barnstorming campaign across the state. It was a chance to visit with friends and family and wax nostalgic about his time as a Dearbornite.
While Snyder now resides in a sprawling Ann Arbor mansion, he twice has spent time living in the city. Snyder first moved to a west side house on Highland Street with his wife, Sue, after their May 1987 marriage at the Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church. There they had their first child, Jeff, who was born at Oakwood Hospital in 1988.
A job transfer for Rick saw the Snyders make a quick stop in Chicago before moving to South Dakota in 1991 for Rick’s new management position with the then-startup computer manufacturer, Gateway Computers. As chief executive officer and president of the fledgling firm Snyder helped grow the payroll from 700-some employees to more than 10,000 in less than six years.
But as the business grew, company stakeholders decided to move operations to Silicon Valley in California. Snyder passed on the opportunity and decided to move back to his home state to raise his family, which had grown to five with the births of his daughters, Melissa and Kelsey.
The Snyders purchased another house on Highland, this time that of Dearborn Hills golf course designer Robert Herndon. A millionaire several times over at that point, Snyder said the reason was simple why they chose Dearborn as opposed to some other community considered more affluent or exclusive.
“It was family and community, definitely, and it’s a fabulous place to live. The neighborhoods are wonderful,” he said.
In an exclusive interview with the Times-Herald, Snyder shared a number of stories that highlighted some of his favorite memories in Dearborn.
Many of them had to do with walking.
There were the walks with his children, when he would drop them off and pick them up at Lindbergh Elementary School. And there were the late-night walks he would take with his dog, during his first stint on Highland.
“In busy season, about two weeks out of the year, anywhere from midnight to 4 in the morning, and this is in February,” Snyder said.
“(His dog) would be waiting for me at the top of the stairs whenever I got home, ready to go for a walk. So he’s an older dog at this point, and so what would happen is we’d be walking in the snow, and after about a block his paws would freeze up, so I would end up picking him up and carrying him the rest of the way. I am sure it raised some eyebrows,” he said.
Aside from his pedestrian memories, Snyder also has a long history of involvement in civic and charitable organizations in the city.
Earlier this year, Snyder and his wife helped to make possible a special ceremony to honor deceased veterans at the city’s annual Memorial Day Parade.
The ceremony consisted of the customary military funerary rites for 19 Dearborn servicemen whose cremated remains have been sitting unclaimed on local funeral parlor shelves in some cases for decades.
But while making the arrangements for the event, Joe Terry, commander of Archie Kelly VFW Post 2107 on Monroe, ran into a problem: the carts traditionally used to transport soldier’s remains, a converted artillery wagon called a “caisson,” no longer are manufactured and the few that remain weren’t available for use. Making matters more difficult, the cost to custom build a caisson was about $8,000.
So Terry went about seeking donations, and along the way called Snyder. He said he asked the candidate if he had any money in his campaign fund that he would be willing to donate.
“(Snyder) says, ‘Well, I don’t need to take the money out of my campaign fund. I’ll take the money out my pocket because this is so important and it deserves to be done properly,’” said Terry, who was at the fundraiser event.
“And then he gave us a check for $2,000,” Terry said.
Throughout the years, the Snyders also have supported the Dearborn Firefighters Burn Drive charity, which helps to provide resources for burn victims. That connection led them to join a couples bowling league of mostly firefighters, where Rick quickly stood out for his equipment.
“I was the only guy in the league who didn’t have his own ball. So every time, I would have to go find a house ball that fit my hand, and you know, people would look at me like, ‘What are you doing?” Snyder recalled.
“But at the end of the year, everyone in the league said, ‘That’s enough,’ and they pitched in and bought me a brand-new, bright, fire engine-red bowling ball.”