As mayoral candidates continue to emerge, the city is still mired in fiscal crisis, dysfunction and a tarnished image. Politicians and pundits banter about who could be the city’s savior.
Bernice Smith, a longtime community activist, has lowered her expectations for the next Detroit mayor.
Gone are the grandiose ideas of a leader with powers to transform a struggling industrial metropolis into a world-class city once again, a mecca for Black arts, culture, scholarship and business innovation.
She no longer hopes for someone who understands how to keep pace with a rapidly changing economy-and a shrinking and increasingly poor population.
Now, like many other disappointed Detroiters, she’ll settle for someone with integrity who can balance the budget and get along with the city council.
“The people of this city just need someone in the mayor’s office they can trust,” says the 80-year-old, who has been civically engaged since relocating from Chicago in 1961. “Someone who knows what he’s doing and can get along with other people.”
It’s a far cry from the charismatic brand of leadership that had been a hallmark of Detroit mayors since the late Coleman Young was elected into office as the Motor City’s first Black mayor almost four decades ago. It also is an indictment of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s management style and efficacy. And, more ominous for him, it has become a central theme among the numerous candidates already jockeying to replace him as mayor in 2013.
From the moment he was sworn in, however, the mayor has been under constant pressure to balance a city budget that has been devastated by a rapidly shrinking tax base amidst high legacy and operating costs and an overinflated workforce. His bitter conflicts over strategy and jurisdiction with the Detroit City Council and the city’s corporation counsel has left residents feeling not only neglected but under siege from crime, poor city services, crumbling neighborhoods and scandalously bad schools. And last month, the city’s financial advisory board unanimously agreed with Michigan State Treasurer Andy Dillon to a 30-day review of the city’s finances. It followed the most recent city projections estimating a $113 million budget deficit by June 30 and an accumulated deficit as high as $440 million.
In 2009, Bing, a former Detroit Piston and prominent businessman, was swept into office as a no-nonsense candidate promising to bring honesty, stability, maturity and a more dignified presence back to the office. He rode in on a tide of anger and disgust at former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers and other city council and school board members embroiled with allegations of corruption and malfeasance in office.
The grim forecast raised the specter of the state imposing an emergency financial manager on the city to a near certainty. An announcement on the controversial position could be made in weeks, if not days. If that happens, neither the next mayor nor the city council will have control over city finances, an estimated $2.6 billion budget or the city’s 69 departments, agencies or employees.
The prospect has left residents fearful about the ultimate loss of control over Detroit’s destiny. In November, Detroit voters led the state in overwhelmingly rejecting a ballot initiative that increased authority of the state’s emergency financial manager law.
The mayor’s critics have pounced on the threat, arguing his lack of leadership and fundamental understanding of the political process has unnecessarily exacerbated the city’s problems.
“This is what happens when you outsource the council and the mayor’s office,” says Detroit political strategist Adolph Mongo. “People for a long time railed against community activists and said we need business people running the city. So now we’ve got in the mayor’s office a nice guy who ran a company that had a lot of issues, and when he got in he surrounded himself with folks that were rookies when it came to city and state politics-and it was a revolving door. He fired more people than he hired.”
Bing supporters argue the mayor has tried to navigate and reform the outdated and Byzantine municipal structure he inherited. Narrow and frequently corrupt interests have gotten away with trumping best practices at the expense of the city and its residents for so long that they are now bitterly resisting his efforts at change.
City Councilman André L. Spivey conceded that Mayor Bing has had to fight to make institutional changes while in office. But he claims he also disrespected the checks and balances of democratic government and insulted city employees by publicly criticizing their work ethic.
“This city needs a mayor who understands the greatest resource in the city is the people,” he says. “They will entrust the mayor to be their leader over the next four years, even though they may not agree with everything the mayor will do. But that’s only if they believe that mayor is genuinely concerned about the people who live and work in the city.”
The primary election is seven months away on Aug. 6, and the general election is Nov. 5. State Reps. Fred Durhal (D-Detroit, 6th District) and Lisa Howze (D-Detroit, 2nd District), Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and former Wayne County prosecutor and Detroit Medical Center chairman Mike Duggan have formally expressed interest in seeking the office. Bing has not indicated whether he will seek re-election.
Anthony Neely, Bing’s press secretary, says the mayor is solely focused on guiding Detroit through its financial crisis and will address any plans for re-election at the appropriate time.
Mayoral candidates have until May 14 to file a petition for election, according to the Detroit Department of Elections.
In the upcoming campaign, Detroiters will seek someone who has command of office and can work collaboratively with other government leaders and employees, says Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based pollster and political strategist.
Financial solvency, public safety, neighborhood revitalization, economic and job development and repairing the image of Detroit will be priorities.
Durhal agrees, and says that’s why he’s running for mayor. The Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, having three mayors in two years and the imminent loss of self-government under Bing has taken a psychological and emotional toll on the city.
“There has been something like 56 different officials, including five different chiefs of police, leave the Bing administration since it assumed the reins of government in 2009,” he says.
“We had key people who left the administration because they were frustrated with management at the top, and I see the city’s fortune going down with it. I know we can do better, and I can do a better job at managing city government.”
However, of the emerging candidates, Napoleon appears to be in the strongest position, Mitchell says.
“It’s really a two-way race between Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon. Because of his position as sheriff and former Detroit police chief, he has a high and a dynamic name recognition. On the other hand, Duggan is also a known entity from his days as Wayne County prosecutor, working for Ed McNamara and turning the Detroit Medical Center around.”
Mitchell says that while many people speculated that attorney Geoffrey Fieger probably stood the best chance of becoming the first white mayor of Detroit since Roman Gribbs, it is Duggan who has the most realistic shot.
“Duggan will say he has the experience and will have far more money than anyone else. He will have very strong support from the business community and surrounding areas. And if Bing remains (in the race), he and Napoleon will siphon off votes from each other, and that creates a lot of opportunities.”
Napoleon dismissed talk of Duggan’s eminence as media speculation rather than community-based support.
“I’m the elephant in the room, not Duggan,” he says, noting a recent poll that asked Detroiters their preference for mayor that showed he was in first place.
“My own research shows I am ahead of all the people in the race,” he says. “I’m going to meet with labor leaders, business leaders and the clergy and conduct a listening tour to see what the people think. I don’t see anybody as a bigger dog than me in the fight, but that’s really up to the citizens.”
Mongo and Mitchell say even if Bing were to run for re-election, given his record and the widespread discontent among voters, they doubt he would survive a primary challenge from Napoleon or Duggan.
Both analysts also agree Durhal, the former chairman of the legislative Black caucus, is well-intended and did an effective job in Lansing, but he lacks stature, charisma and the ability to form coalitions and, most importantly, to raise enough money.
They dismiss Howze as too inexperienced to seriously compete with Napoleon and Duggan.
“This is the problem with Detroit,” Mongo says. “She just got elected to the State House and, after one term, she thinks she can run the city. The city may have lost population and leverage over the years, but it still is the largest and most complex city in the state.”
While acknowledging Duggan will be a force to be reckoned with, Mongo agrees with Napoleon that Duggan has enjoyed more media speculation than actual Detroiter enthusiasm.
“I’m going to tell you, when people say it should not be about race, it’s about race,” he says. “These older folks are not going to vote for Duggan. He will have a hard time beating Dave Bing right now, even with all his issues.”
He says Duggan also must run a “near-perfect campaign” to win, because he can’t depend on the severely shrunken Detroit middle class.
“The people who are going to decide this race are the victims of the crime and mayhem in this city,” Mongo says. “The seniors, the working poor, people who ride the buses. This is what we are dealing with. The parents of kids who walk to school in the dark and don’t know if they are going to be snatched up by somebody. That’s what we are dealing with.”
Napoleon, however, says the campaign will not be about race, but genuine community-based leadership that can motivate and inspire the city back to greatness.
“We need a strong voice in the mayor’s office. When we had it, we had a more unified legislature representing us in Lansing,” he says. “When you have a leader who can rally us, I think we can be more successful.”
Ironically, even as the 2013 mayoral campaign promises to be the most consequential city election in a generation, there is a very real possibility that whoever wins it may be the weakest mayor in Detroit history.
The imposition of an un-elected emergency financial manager will make all the battles with city council over appropriations, budget priorities, restructuring and signing of contracts, bonds and investments all but moot.
Still, while adamantly opposed to an emergency financial manager, Smith, the community activist, is ready for change.
“When (Bing) first took over, I had hoped that he would be able to do the job,” she says. “I had confidence in him and thought he would make a good mayor. But as time went on, I began to see that he didn’t treat city council like they are representatives of the city. He thinks they are still his plant employees, but this is not your plant. This is a city.”
– TREVOR W. COLEMAN IS A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR WHOSE BIOGRAPHY OF FEDERAL JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH, “CRUSADER FOR JUSTICE,” WILL BE PUBLISHED IN SPRING 2013.