On a Thursday afternoon in mid-July, about 40 folks have gathered in the sanctuary of Liberty Temple Baptist Church on Detroit's west side to hear from five people who want to be the city's next mayor. The candidates are varied and optimistic, earnest and ...
What's that you say? There's a mayor's race going on in Detroit?
If this is news to you, or if you are vaguely aware that a mayoral primary will be held Aug. 4, but have no clue about the quintet of challengers vying to unseat newly elected incumbent Dave Bing, you can be forgiven. This is a race that's been virtually ignored by local media.
With no high-profile televised debates such as those held before February's primary, and a dearth of coverage from the city's daily newspapers and TV stations, its almost as if this contest isn't taking place at all.
Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the city's charter bear some small part of the blame, having combined to set in motion a truly bizarre election cycle when Kilpatrick had to leave office after pleading guilty to two counts of felony perjury last September.
Because of the timing of his departure, the charter called for a primary and special election to determine who would serve out the remainder of Kilpatrick's term, which ends Dec. 31. On top of that, there would also be the regularly scheduled Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election to decide who will be sitting in the mayor's seat for a full four-year term come January.
The first round of elections earlier this year brought out a host of big names and intense coverage. There was former City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr., who had been appointed interim mayor until the special election was held. Freman Hendrix, who served as deputy mayor during the Dennis Archer administration and challenged Kilpatrick in the 2004 general election, was also in the running. So were former City Council members Nicholas Hood III and Sharon McPhail, both former mayoral contenders, and Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans. There were a host off lesser-known candidates as well — but even they had a place on stage for a series of televised debates.
In the end, though, it was businessman and one-time Piston great Bing who came out on top after winning the primary and then defeating Cockrel in the May runoff.
This time around, all the big names who were previously running have dropped out of contention. Hendrix threw his support behind Bing after losing the primary, was appointed to Bing's transition team, and is now running for a seat on the commission that will oversee revision of the city's charter. Evans, after declaring he wouldn't run again, has just been appointed the city's police chief by Bing. Cockrel returned to the City Council, and is now campaigning to hold onto that seat. The other high-profile candidates opted against running for mayor again as well.
Which left Bing to be challenged by just the four men and one woman who showed up at last week's forum sponsored by the Michigan Progressive Baptist Convention Inc.
They aren't exactly household names. Businessman Tom Barrow twice ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Coleman Young during the 1980s, then saw any hopes of a political career sidetracked when he was sent to prison for income tax evasion. Although still trying to get that criminal conviction overturned, he says a ruling in a civil proceeding in November has finally vindicated him.
Of the remaining four, business owner and author Jerroll Sanders and entrepreneur Duane Montgomery ran in the January primary but garnered almost no support. City worker D'Artagnan Collier and entertainer-businessman Bob Allman are making their first forays into politics.
Even in a typical election, candidates who lack name recognition or easy access to the kind of wealth that would allow them to get their message across to voters have a difficult time generating much coverage. But a confluence of factors that's occurred leading up to this contest has made their already daunting challenge immensely more difficult.
It was less than 90 days ago that Dave Bing — who ran as a non-politician promising a clean break from the scandals and corruption that have racked the city — was sworn in as mayor of Detroit.
That's not enough time to make much of a mark before facing voters again. And it is understandable that the public, which just went through months of electioneering, might not have much stomach for going through it all again.
"Because of everything that happened last year [with the Kilpatrick administration], I think a lot of people who just voted were motivated by a real desire for change," says Vince Keenan, founder of Publius, a Web-based nonprofit involved in voter education. "But the thing about change as the motivator in an election is that you have to give it a chance to work. I think voters might not be really interested in opening this one back up right now."
Political consultant Greg Bowens, who served as press secretary during the Dennis Archer administration, agrees.
"Part of it is that folks sort of have voter fatigue," he says.
Noting that two elections have already been held this year, preceded by the unprecedented turmoil created by the long-running Kilpatrick scandal, Bowens says that it's his sense "that people just want to move on. How long can you have an endless political war in Detroit?"
On top of that, Bing has made some astute political moves since taking office by bringing former opponents like Hendrix and Evans into the fold. In a way, it's like what Barack Obama has done since assuming the presidency, and the complete opposite of the vengeful approach employed by Kilpatrick during his seven years in office.
"Everyone knew that if you crossed the Kilpatrick administration, he would try to get you," says Bowens. "Bing has been cool enough to not scare people."
On the whole, the fact Bing appears to have an easy road to victory in the primary and then the November runoff is a benefit for the city as a whole, says one of his former opponents.
"Whatever the reasons are, it's a good thing this is not a tough race," says Sharon McPhail, who fell to Bing in the February primary. "He needs to be given the opportunity to get something done."
It may be that the media has come to the same conclusion. Not that "the media" is some monolithic structure, says McPhail, but reporters and editors have positions, and "those positions inform what's going on in terms of coverage."
That's not to say Bing's first few months in office have been without controversy.
For instance, there was Bing's campaign promise to retain the well-respected James Barren, who was appointed police chief by Cockrel to help clean up the departmental mess created by Kilpatrick. Bing quickly reneged on that pledge, dismissing Barren without explanation and appointing Evans to take his place.
Likewise, Bing said during the campaign that he opposed continued use of Detroit's controversial municipal waste incinerator to dispose of the city's garbage, favoring instead a plan that combined ramped-up recycling efforts and landfills.
However, when the City Council recently passed a resolution to seek a court injunction to halt shipments of trash to the incinerator, Bing issued his first veto. His administration justified that flip-flop by saying the new mayor didn't realize the complexity of legal entanglements that appear to tie the city's hands when it come to the incinerator.
Those actions, and a controversial stand in favor of a state plan for Cobo Center — similar to one previously opposed by a majority of City Council — has some yearning for the kind of bare-knuckled debates that took place during the last go-round.
"I'm disappointed that the media is ignoring this mayor's race," says activist Theo Broughton, co-founder of Hood Research, an organization formed to keep Detroiters informed about vital issues.
Bing's flip-flop on chief Barren, along with the fact the city continues to fall deeper into debt as the mayor delays tough budget decisions until after the election, are of particular concern.
But with no extensive coverage of the race, the public isn't getting a chance to see where the contenders stand on these issues, or how Bing might respond to their criticisms.
"The media is taking advantage of the fact that people don't have all the information they need to make an informed choice," says challenger Jerroll Sanders. "It almost forces you to vote for the candidate who's well-known."
A lack of media attention, however, is only part of the problem Sanders and her fellow contenders face.
Business as usual?
When he first ran for mayor, Dave Bing had the formidable advantage of being a millionaire businessman, observes Vince Keenan.
"Now," says Keenan, "he's a millionaire incumbent."
Make that a millionaire incumbent with strong backing from Detroit's moneyed forces — the corporate executives and powerful law firms, along with unions and religious leaders — which have long played an influential role in shaping the city's politics.
"Bing recently held a fundraiser that attracted a who's who of local politicians and the business community," reports political consultant Bowens. "That's sends a strong message."
And what's the message?
"That people are thinking of the mayor's race as a fait accompli, that there's been a coalescing of forces behind this mayor, and that the race is pretty much done."
But it's not as if Bing was swept into office on the wave of an overwhelming mandate. He beat Cockrel by a respectable 4 percentage points in the May runoff, but the total number of votes cast was fewer than 96,000; compare that to November 2005, when about 224,000 people voted in the mayoral runoff between Kilpatrick and Freman Hendrix.
With the turnout for the upcoming election expected to be low as well, there's an outside chance that a challenger able to gather a large cadre of motivated volunteers could make a strong showing, says Bowens.
But you would be hard-pressed to find many seasoned political observers — including Bowens — who would bet on that happening.
It comes back to clout.
"Dave Bing is a candidate who is heavily supported by the larger corporate interests, and the newspapers are part of that," says the Rev. Nicholas Hood III, another former council member who failed to make the cut in February's primary. "The newspapers have not been supercritical of him. I think it is their way of giving him time to get a good grasp of the issues and giving him every opportunity to succeed."
Along with all that, there's something else working in Bing's favor as well.
Focus on the council
Vince Keenan, who founded Publius in 1996 as a way to help educate voters, suggests that part of what's going on with this election is a "progression of events."
By that he means that for most of 2008, Detroiters were fixated on the various scandals swirling around Kwame Kilpatrick. By electing an outsider like Bing — not only is he a political novice, but he only just moved to the city from Franklin last year — voters seem to "have sorted out the situation involving the mayor's office."
Now attention — both for the electorate and his organization as well — has shifted to the at-large City Council race, which is as wide-open as any in memory. Two incumbents — Sheila Cockrel and Barbara-Rose Collins — aren't seeking re-election, leaving seats open. A third seat, the one vacated by Monica Conyers after she pleaded guilty to a federal felony connected to the Synagro bribery scandal, is also open.
In addition to those open seats, the incumbents running for re-election must overcome the stigma of being part of a council that became a national laughingstock because of the antics of some of its members, not to mention the cloud of a federal corruption investigation that may not have run its course.
"Now that they've dealt with the mayor," sees Keenan, "it seems like people think it's time to take up the situation with the council and correct the problems that exist there."
That certainly seems to be the thinking over at the Detroit Free Press, which has yet to run profiles on any of the mayoral challengers, but on Sunday made a big splash with its high-profile endorsement of nine council candidates, only two of whom are incumbents.
"For at least the last four years, the Detroit City Council has been an embarrassment to the electorate it purports to serve," the paper's editors wrote in announcing the backing of what they dubbed "Team Turnaround." "It doesn't have to be that way. Detroit's Aug. 4 primary offers voters an extraordinary opportunity to select a team of ethical, public-spirited leaders that is equal to their city's extraordinary challenges."
With 167 candidates in the race, sorting through the entire field is a near-impossible task for the average voter, says Keenan.
There's also a race to select members of the commission who will oversee revision of the city's charter, which Keenan sees as diverting a fair amount of energy from the mayor's race.
And given the reality of all the cutbacks being made at the city's struggling dailies, if you have to decide how dwindling resources are going to be marshaled, it's not unreasonable to focus them on the council race rather than the mayor's contest where voters have just had the opportunity to make a selection.
But try telling that to the five mayoral challengers who are battling to overcome obscurity. Make that four of the candidates.
Tom Barrow, by virtue of the fact he did mount credible campaigns against Coleman Young in the '80s, is at least getting some ink. The Detroit News, apparently without the virtue of any polling to back up the contention, recently christened him as the leading contender.
"I've been to this rodeo before," he says. "I know how this is done."
Some of his opponents, on the other hand, see his relative success as more media collusion. If the papers really are working to get Bing re-elected, they reason, then the best thing would be to get Barrow in the runoff because, in a city weary of corruption, a candidate who served time in prison for income tax fraud — whether justified or not — will suffer from a handicap that will be hard to overcome.
Barrow, of course, does not see things that way. It's his contention that a divine hand is guiding his candidacy, and past travails were something that had to be overcome in preparation for this run. "God has tested me," he said. "It wasn't my time before."
What's beyond dispute is that, after Aug. 4, it will be someone's time to face Bing head-to-head. And at that point it will be far easier to zero in on whoever emerges as the challenger. For any of the five to get there, it looks like they will have to do it largely on their own, without much coverage from the media.
But once they do, it is critical that they be given a fair hearing, because Bing is not without his flaws. And Detroit, which for at least 40 years seems to have been at a critical juncture, has never been at a more pivotal point.
The auto industry that formed its economic bedrock for most of the past century teeters precariously as two of what used to be known as the Big Three emerge from bankruptcy reorganization. The consensus opinion from President Barack Obama on down is that even though every effort is being made to save the industry, many of the jobs lost are never coming back, and the city known as Motown is in for a long and perilous struggle.
Unemployment in Detroit is approaching 25 percent. People continue to flee at a rate of about 10,000 per year. The foreclosure crisis gripping the nation hit here early and hit here hard, adding to what was already an unmanageable number of abandoned homes. Crime and poverty rates are consistently among the highest of the country's big cities. The school district, overseen by an appointed financial manager, is considering bankruptcy. And the city, facing a general fund deficit of $300 million, could soon be facing insolvency as well.
Given all that, there are two ways to evaluate the current election.
One is what might be called the accepted wisdom: Voters just selected a new mayor following a vigorous election, and he should be given enough time to show his mettle. What the city doesn't need is a fourth mayor holding office during a span of less than 16 months. Stability is what's needed most now.
And then there's what might be called unconventional wisdom, although many would balk at crediting it as wisdom at all. That view holds that we should at least take the time and make the effort to listen to the ideas and critiques of a handful of people who care enough to have gathered the more than 1,000 signatures needed to get their names placed on the ballot.
Legitimate candidates for office, who did what was required of them to get in the race.
"Like everyone else, I voted for big names before," Duane Montgomery told those 40 people who showed up at Liberty Temple Baptist Church on the city's west side last week. And we've seen the results."
Big names with important backers who have brought us to the verge of ruin.
So why not hear what Bob Allman — who boasts of 45 years experience in the entertainment industry as both a performer and entrepreneur — has to say about capitalizing on new opportunities he sees in his field of expertise?
Why not pay attention to Jerroll Sanders, an obviously intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished woman who has a well-reasoned critique of the Cobo Center plan Mayor Bing is pushing and a host of plans to help the city rebound?
Why not consider some of the ideas of Duane Montgomery, who argues that the city would be better off if one of Detroit's casinos were publicly owned, with the profits going to pay for municipal services instead of into private hands.
Why not hear out Tom Barrow, a CPA who warns that the financial hole facing the city could be twice as deep as what's being widely reported?
And why not take to heart the warnings of D'Artagnan Collier, a worker at the city's Department of Water and Sewerage and a committed socialist who cautions that, unless things turn around soon, there's "going to be a social explosion."
Maybe it is recklessly idealistic to argue that all these folks deserve to be heard and fairly evaluated at a time when, as some contend, the best thing to do is let the newly elected mayor establish stability and show us what he can do rather than treat this as a real contest. That's not the message you'd hear in a high school civics class, but it could arguably be what's best in a world governed by the harsh reality of realpolitik.
But, as the Rev. Jerome Warfield, who expertly moderated last week's forum, told us afterward, "It is disconcerting, and maybe even dangerous, not to look at all these candidates. You never know. Maybe we'll find a diamond in the rough."
See publius.org for candidate rosters for Detroit elections plus links to candidate websites and other election resources.
WHAT THE CONTENDERS SAY:
Occupation: Entertainment industry entrepreneur
Reason for running: Concerned about the fact that Detroit continues to lose masses of people. Has a vision for how this city can be turned around, not only to keep people from leaving, but also to attract new people to come here. Would be remiss not to present vision for revival of Detroit through the highly lucrative entertainment industry. Until citizens are part of the plan, no plan will work.
Plan: For the last five years, at own expense, has researched and studied the science of entertainment, as it pertains to economic development and recovery across greater Detroit and in fact, the state of Michigan. Has a comprehensive jobs, business and redevelopment plan for the empowerment of citizens. Understands the quest for Detroit to supply the insatiable global demand for entertainment content.
Tom Joe Barrow
Education: Bachelor's degree, Wayne State University; master's of business administration, Wayne State University
Occupation: Certified Public Accountant and business owner
Reason for running: We are in the midst of a historic economic and financial crisis at City Hall that threads itself throughout our local, regional and national economies. We need a mayor who is a fighter and who understands how to fix the city and the school's finances; who will strengthen Detroit; protect its valuable assets and raise the hopes of its citizens.
Plan: Will create Detroit jobs by not only attracting leading companies and diverse industries to Detroit, such as technology and energy-based businesses, but by creating a clear nexus between the city's army of vendors and the programs that train Detroiters for the next generation of jobs. Intends to bring jobs to metro Detroit by increasing the number of Detroit-based small businesses by establishing special economic incentives at the local level to create and build these small businesses.
Education: Associate's degree in business, Wayne County Community College
Occupation: Sewage plant operator, Detroit Department of Water & Sewerage
Reason for running: The decline of American industry has devastated Detroit. Official unemployment in the city stands at 22 percent after decades of job cuts in auto and other manufacturing. Detroit is the country's poorest big city, with more than a third of the population living below the official poverty line.
Plan: A massive public works program to rebuild the city, providing jobs to all who need them. Billions must be spent to build factories, hospitals, schools, and a new mass transit system to serve the whole region. Call for an immediate end to foreclosures and the lowering of the principal on home mortgages for all working people.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Michigan State University
Occupation: Information technology consultant
Reason running: Frustration over choices that we've had. Until now, Mayor Bing has never lived in Detroit. Feel he will ultimately look out for the best interests of businesses rather than the people of Detroit. Also, none of the other candidates has a plan to raise revenue.
Plan: Put a secondary tax on casino to raise cash to handle all the city's debt. Create city-owned businesses such as casino, hotel, indoor-outdoor water and amusement park, shopping center with free parking complex.
Education: B.S. from Bowling Green University
Occupation: Business consultant and author
Reason for running: Has long regarded Detroit and its citizenry as "Jewels by the River," seeing enormous potential latent in this city and a real opportunity for masses of Detroiters to improve their social and economic condition, while helping to build a city that is vibrant and thriving in every way! Would be a model mayor — one guided by a genuine concern for the people and businesses of Detroit and who evidences integrity in all dealings. Promises to work hard and smart to lead Detroit into a new era of prosperity and growth and restore its reputation as one of this nation's great urban areas.
Plan: Will oversee an unbiased examination of all city operations and practices to identify waste and abuse, or services that are not needed or can be performed in a cheaper, more efficient way.