Enough, Detroit

Credit: Daily Kos

Detroiters, it’s over.  It’s time to put an end to the madness.  It’s time to say “no mas” to the years of fiscal mismanagement that have led to the city’s current insolvency.  It’s time to cease the self-determination posturing that city leaders and activists have been propagating for too long.  Detroit has long favored empowerment over governance.  The city must accept the inevitability of the emergency financial manager stepping in if it is ever going to have a viable future.
Detroit absolutely cannot have a turning point if there is no point from which it can pivot.  This is that point.  If you truly do want a great city, this is your moment.
Readers of this blog know me as frequent writer and big-time advocate for my hometown of Detroit.  On many occasions I’ve mentioned that growing up black in Detroit during the ‘70s is what led me to choose my profession as an urban planner.  For those who don’t know, Detroit has been targeted for fiscal takeover by the State of Michigan for more than a year.  After the election of Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a largely GOP legislature in 2010, the newly elected officials moved quickly to pass Public Act 4 in early 2011, a sweeping piece of legislation that gave the state near-absolute authority to resolve deep fiscal problems in Michigan municipalities.  Under the law, the EFM, appointed by the governor, can act independently and unilaterally as a mayor/city manager/city council (read: dictator) to cut budgets, consolidate departments and negotiate terms with creditors.  A similar act was passed in 1990, which led to smaller towns and cities like Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Ecorse being taken over by the state and run by an EFM.  The Detroit School District has already been taken over under this act, as well as the school district in nearby Flint.  The new legislation gave the EFM even more authority to do away with union contract agreements.
Since talk about a possible EFM heated up more than a year ago, the governor and Detroit’s mayor and city council have been dancing a delicate dance around the issue while trying to find a resolution.  The governor initially pressed Mayor Dave Bing and the city council to approve a consent agreement, essentially agreeing to accept state financial assistance without an EFM but with little local involvement or discretion.  The council narrowly agreed to the consent agreement, but the council’s actions indicated that it likely never intended to follow the spirit of the agreement.  Making matters worse, Detroit City Attorney Krystal Crittendon filed a lawsuit against the state, saying that any consent agreement between city and state was invalid due to funds already owed by the state.  This was done apparently without the mayor’s blessing and jeopardized the consent agreement process.  Crittendon was fired in January, and is now a candidate for mayor in Detroit’s municipal elections in November.
Public Act 4 was repealed in November 2012, when it was put on the state ballot.  The repeal effort garnered more attention largely because Detroit was firmly in the sights of the state already.  Statewide, Prop 1, the measure to keep Public Act 4, failed by a 52-48 margin.  However, in Detroit the measure failed by a staggering 82-18 margin.  The governor has pressed on by saying that the state still has the authority to appoint an EFM under the earlier law, which has not received any legal challenge.
This past Friday, Governor Snyder announced that he will indeed appoint an EFM to resolve the fiscal matters of Detroit.  The city has until March 11 to file an appeal to the state, which would be heard on March 12.  It’s conceivable that an EFM could be in place as soon as the Tigers’ Opening Day at Comerica Park.
Empowerment Over Governance
This is most definitely a sad time in Detroit’s long history, but it is one that has been decades in the making.  The decline of the auto industry has been well-chronicled.  The rapid resegregation that sapped wealth from the Motor City has also been well-discussed (but not thoroughly so; soon I will write about blockbusting and redlining tactics in the ‘50s and ‘60s that created ghettos where none had existed before, and how such tactics were most effective in Detroit and Chicago).  But what is often less well understood by outsiders is the impact of Detroit’s political culture over the last 40 years.  That culture, created by Mayor Coleman Young and deepened by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was initially one that supported empowerment and expanded opportunity.  However it devolved into one that empowered a select few neglected accountability.
Coleman Young, 1989.  Source: Detroit Free Press
Coleman Young was most certainly elected as mayor in 1973 using an “it’s our time” campaign theme.  Just six years after the devastating 1967 riots in Detroit, Young emerged as the most capable and credible black mayoral candidate at that time.  The city was still dealing with the aftershocks of the riot, but was also dealing with police brutality, busing and redlining issues at the same time.  He represented an angry black electorate that had endured multiple indignities and calculated that they could endure no more.  Young rode this wave to become Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973.
But challenging inequities, pursuing empowerment and expanding opportunity are not the same as governance.  He pushed for a city government workforce that looked more like the city it served, but the provision of services began to decline.  He created greater transparency in the city contracting process that allowed more minorities to obtain city contracts, but abuses were evident.  Perhaps the most divisive event under Mayor Young’s reign was the Poletown/.General Motors Assembly Plan eminent domain case in the 1980s.  The mayor aggressively pursued the development of a new plant to create jobs in the city, but oversaw the destruction of a neighborhood as a result.  While white residents were never truly part of his coalition, the Poletown affair may have been the last straw for many white Detroit residents.
Dennis Archer, Detroit’s second black mayor, was elected after Young decided not seek a sixth term in office.  In many respects Archer was the anti-Young: a lawyer, past president of the American Bar Association and former Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, Archer ran on a campaign to build bridges with Detroit’s suburbs and business community, while also seeking to control the city’s budget through cost-cutting and privatization.  He did receive substantial support from both groups.  Running against Sharon McPhail, the handpicked successor of Coleman Young, Archer won in 1993 despite not winning a majority of the black vote in a majority black city.  While largely successful with rebuilding the suburban and business relationships, Archer’s tenure was characterized by frequent scrapes with Coleman Young loyalists.  A recall effort in 1999 led by Young loyalists charged Archer with letting city service provision decline so that privatization – and the ascension of suburban and business control within the city – could occur.  Archer withstood the recall effort but did not run for a third term in 2001.
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at this year’s Detroit Auto Show.  Source: Detroit News
The 2001 election was won by Kwame Kilpatrick.  Just 31 at the time of his election, he became one of the youngest big city mayors in the nation and got there by garnering the support of former Young loyalists.  Unfortunately his administration was tainted by scandal and corruption from the very start and culminated in his resignation from office in 2008 and subsequent imprisonment.  He is now undergoing a 38-count trial that alleges a widespread pattern of bribery, extortion and fraud while he was in office.
The years following Kilpatrick’s resignation have been some of the most tumultuous in the Motor City’s political history.  Dave Bing was elected mayor in a 2009 special election and reelected in 2011, and he was supposed to bring the same corporate acumen and bridge-building temperament that Dennis Archer had.  However by all accounts Bing has run into the same obstinate buzzsaw that thwarted Archer’s tenure.
Defiant Pariah
Forty years of Detroiters choosing empowerment over governance has led to the dysfunction that shackles the city today.  This sentiment, which ultimately led to a pattern of corruption in Detroit, is likely best illustrated by the words of Sam Riddle, a former political consultant who teamed with former Detroit Councilwoman Monica Conyers is a virtual spree of bribery, extortion and fraud activities.  Riddle is out of prison now after serving a 37-month sentence and is unrepentant.  He’s ready to challenge the state’s EFM appointment:
“The emergency financial manager is the largest and most racist poll tax in the United States.  The Justice Department needs to intervene to protect the 15th and 24th Amendments.  The right to vote has been whipped in the largest black city in America.  The New South is Detroit.”
Riddle wants to spearhead an international boycott against the state of Michigan until the “right to vote” and “representation” is restored.
Do people like Riddle and others really know how people outside of their circle view Detroit?  Are they really that committed to a scorched-earth policy that will make Detroit the defiant pariah that many people already perceive it to be?  What good is it to maintain your grasp on power, if there is literally nothing of value within your control?
Enough, Detroit.  The city has been a defiant pariah for 40 years.  How well has that worked out?  I’m not even close to being a Republican, but I applaud Gov. Snyder for being the first Michigan governor in decades to recognize the importance of Detroit, the state’s largest city by far, to the overall economic health of Michigan. 
One would think that, over time, a political maturation would have occurred among Detroit residents.  After years of seeing a lack of accountability at the mayoral and city council levels, why have residents not demanded that their leaders more effectively build bridges to those that could help them?  Why have they not made the political calculation that continued defiance equals irrelevance?  Or worse, political death?
The time is now as never before in Detroit’s history.  Detroit desperately needs new leadership that can think beyond the very limited constructs of Detroit local politics.  The city’s electorate must mature and simply get off of the empowerment theme.   A blow must be delivered to the city’s corrupt past.  The city must get its financial house in order. 
Otherwise, Detroit will become the world’s largest ghost town.  But hey, we’d still control it.  And ultimately that’s what we want, right?

One thought on “Enough, Detroit

  1. Great to have the historical theme of power in the mayor's office since Young. As an urban planner still in Detroit, I want to do what I can while not touching politics with a 10 foot pole.

    Glad the Urbanophile shared your post!


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