"Well," I was thinking, "he is the youngest mayor the city ever had, and he faces a lot of problems, and I should give him a chance to explain himself."
So I drove down past the casinos and the Renaissance Center one afternoon, and went to City Hall, where, for the first time in a long time, nobody looked through my briefcase or put me through a metal detector.
I walked right into his office and told the receptionist I had an appointment to see hizzoner. She smiled and said, "Certainly," and went back to get him. Seconds later he breezed out and took my hand. "Great to meet you!" he said, ushering me into his office. There were no bodyguards, no minders, no Adolph Mongos with arms folded, no grandiose pictures of himself.
Just me and the mayor. Mayor Eddie Francis, that is, who presides over the city with the world’s best view of Detroit: Windsor, Ontario. Virtually nobody in Detroit has ever heard of him, which is too bad, since his story is considerably more interesting and impressive than that of the man with the earring and the deficit.
Francis also realizes something that most of our politicians, white or black, don’t: "We’re all in this together. So how can we, here in Windsor and in Detroit, compete and win in the global age? Firstly, by recognizing that and embracing the reality that southeast Michigan and Windsor-Essex is an economic zone.
"Rather than competing with each other, we should be joining hands. We are not one another’s competition! We are competing with places in Alabama, and Mexico and India for jobs and investment. We’ll do that — but we must remain focused on becoming stronger and more efficient," he said.
I started daydreaming. Maybe we could do one of those publicity stunt programs where Windsor and Detroit exchange mayors for a day, and then seal the borders … nah. Canada has done nothing to deserve that, even if they do dump some of their garbage over here. Besides, Francis is against sealed borders. The customs guys here sometimes give him a hard time, though.
When he crosses the river, driving his own Chrysler Pacifica, they’re skeptical. "You’re the mayor? Driving yourself?" they say. "Where’s the entourage?" Indeed, when I ask Norma, his chief of staff (five people in all), where the limousines and bodyguards are, she begins to giggle.
Don’t get the idea that he’s a figurehead, by the way, or that his city is a tiny, cute place without real problems, like my own Huntington Woods. Windsor is a truly ethnically diverse city of 210,000 with persistent unemployment and horrendous traffic problems and border control issues, many stemming from our own overreaction to the events of Sept. 11.
Eddie Francis has a real job, all right; he makes about $88,000 in our dollars a year. And when you consider his background, the fact that he was elected mayor of this city — let alone at age 29 — is a far more impressive feat than anything in Kwame Kilpatrick’s career.
When he was born in May 1974, his family had just arrived from Lebanon, and his father, a jeweler in the old country, started a business selling pita bread, primarily to the city’s Arab immigrants. (The mayor speaks fluent English, French and Arabic.) Later, when his father retired, Eddie and his brothers took the business over and expanded it across Ontario and into a dozen states.
Meanwhile, he earned an honors degree in chemistry and biochemistry, and started law school. When he was 24, he was chosen young entrepreneur of the year. A reporter called to check out a rumor he was running for City Council. "I hadn’t even thought about it, but that got me thinking."
So he ran and won, finished his law degree and went to work for a major firm until he was elected mayor in November 2003. He did find some time in there to marry a girl he’d had his eye on since high school, "though I don’t think she noticed me then," he says with a hint of wistful triumph.
His wife, Dr. Michelle Prince, doesn’t have a city-provided luxury car, or her own minder from the police force; she has a family wellness clinic instead. Neither of them seems to go clubbing. They go home to a house they’re buying.
Being the mayor of Windsor isn’t always a walk in the park. Too few in Michigan realize it, but more trade moves across the Windsor-Detroit border than through any other crossing in North America. If it were to be closed, or traffic seriously disrupted, the economies of Michigan and Ontario would be destroyed.
That means hordes of trucks crossing the bridge, at all times — most of them full of stuff to keep the automotive industry running. After Sept. 11, Washington insisted on tougher border security requirements, and that means residential streets are often clogged with trucks waiting to get across the bridge.
Sometimes, trucks would be stuck on side streets, belching blue smoke, for as many as five hours. The federal government’s solution was to come out and put portable toilets for people to use on the front lawns of homes.
That, as you can imagine, wasn’t popular. Mayor Francis hired Sam Schwartz, a world-renowned transportation expert from New York, to come up with a solution, which turned out to be a new truck bypass route. All that needs to be done now is a federal environmental assessment.
And, oh yes, coming up with a few hundred million dollars to build it. "It’ll get done," Francis says. He projects an enthusiastic can-do attitude that seems to be infectious. "Our future may lie beyond our vision," but it is not completely beyond our control," he said in the state of his city address this spring, quoting not a Canadian politician, but Bobby Kennedy.
"He seems to have gotten City Council working together in a way they weren’t before," says Hugh Macgibbon, a 36-year-old Windsor teacher.
Windsor isn’t Detroit, of course, and Canada isn’t the United States. Yet they have more in common than we often think, and one of the main failings of the wretched Detroit media is that they utterly ignore Canada.
Canada cannot, of course, ignore us; as somebody there once said, they are a mouse in bed with a geopolitical elephant. But the moral of the Eddie Francis story is something else. He has a healthy ego; virtually all politicians do. Yet he doesn’t see his job, or his life, as being All About Himself and His Career. We could use a few politicians like that. Nor does he see politics as a permanent career. Windsor’s mayor insists he wants to serve two three-year terms and then go practice law and have a real life.
Whether he actually gets out of politics remains to be seen. But if he wanted amnesty, or a seat in our Congress, I’d give it to him.
Teach your children well: The experts agree that Michigan will have no chance to compete for the jobs of the future unless it has decent schools. But for years, the right-wing nuts and the gutless wonders in the Legislature have been cutting their budgets, and now they’re about to do it again.
Next Tuesday, June 21, a fairly new group, the K-16 coalition, which supports education at all levels, is sponsoring a rally and march to the Capitol dome in Lansing. Unless you’re a secret spy for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, you ought to think about going. Get details at michigank16.org.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org