It's difficult for me to say Cobo Center. That's not because I have a speech impediment. It's just that I'm a native and lifelong Detroiter and I grew up calling the place Cobo Hall. Even after some 23 years of a not-so-new name, it just doesn't roll off my tongue.
But, these days, it's hard to even think of the place without wincing. Cobo Center is now the name of the game in Detroit's race-baiting politics. City Council is throwing down big-time over the deal Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. made to turn the struggling Cobo over to a regional authority. Some councilmembers are fighting mad and — this being a multiple-election and possibly a multiple-indictment year — they're ready to drop the gloves and swing bare-knuckled at whoever opposes them. They voted down Cockrel's deal, and when he vetoed their decision, they took him to court. In the accompanying war of words, the ammunition is racially charged and divisive. For instance, when a Teamster official said that the Cobo deal would create good-paying jobs for union workers, City Council President Monica Conyers replied, "Those workers look like you; they don't look like me."
That pretty much means, "You are white, I am black, and never the twain shall meet."
Race is also dredged up in the rhetoric about whether or not federal economic stimulus funds could be used to refurbish Cobo so that the city doesn't have to turn it over to the regional group. Councilmember Barbara-Rose Collins — who distinguished herself by warbling "Onward Christian Soldiers" at a March 5 special session that failed to override Cockrel's veto of council's rejection of the Cobo deal — upped the ante at a March 14 rally "for a better Cobo deal." "We want our stimulus package to come directly to the city of Detroit, bypassing the racist extortions of the state of the region," she said. It doesn't matter much that the end of Collins' statement was senseless. She managed to put the words "state" and "racist" in the same sentence, and that's all that matters.
I don't understand what's racist about the deal. It's not a great deal; I'm not sure there is a great deal to be had. However that does not make it racist. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is not my favorite person, but just because he's trying to get the best deal possible for his county's interests does not make the deal racist. And the implication is that the non-Detroit interests — including Wayne County, Macomb County and the state of Michigan — are all acting on racist principles. That's not outside the realm of possibility, but my guess is that every player is playing for the best deal for their constituencies, including Wayne County, where you have to count on Detroit in order to be successful.
I suspect that a lot of the posing by councilmembers has to do with bruised egos for not having been in on the negotiations (which have been going on for years) and with an eye toward yet another local election coming up this November. Some 300 people have taken out petitions to place themselves on the ballot for the nine City Council positions. Incumbents almost never lose, and there is no more sure way to energize your base of voters in Detroit than to make yourself out to be a racial warrior. Of course, that belies the fact that so many African-Americans who have the means to do so continue to vote with their feet and move out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs. It's not exactly Detroit against the lily-white suburbs anymore.
Another possible motivation for some councilmembers is that if there are federal indictments stemming from the Synagro bribery investigation — an outgrowth of a city corruption probe that prosecutors say started at Cobo — it doesn't hurt from a public relations perspective to have it on record that whitey is out to get you.
Let's move on to the question of federal stimulus money. Some councilmembers who oppose the Cobo deal — Conyers, Collins, JoAnn Watson, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi and Martha Reeves voted against it — suggest that the city could use those funds to pay for the Cobo fix-up and expansion of exhibition space. That opens up a whole other can of worms. It's not clear whether than can be legally done. The governor's office says it can't be. But City Council, apparently ever ingenious when it comes to chasing straw men, seems to think it can be pulled off. At the March 14 rally, Rep. John Conyers, husband of our City Council president, told the Freep that there is a possibility that federal stimulus money could be used to fix Cobo. Wow! That's a real nothing statement. It's possible that it could happen. Let's get a committee going on that.
The next question is: Would the Obama administration bypass the state and give money directly to the city? Let's see, if the money is being doled out through state governments across the country, giving it directly to Detroit would mean a change in protocol. So what argument do we have for special consideration — whitey is out to get us?
President Obama has already warned mayors not to screw up with the stimulus money. What do you think are the chances that he'll make a special grant to a city that has displayed dysfuction to the degree that Detroit has, with yet another fight between council and the mayor going to court, using up our already limited funds and taking attention away from all the other tremendous problems that we face — a sort of déjà vu of what we went through last year. Not to mention the Synagro issue drifting about in the shadows. It doesn't bespeak an atmosphere that would make a president who is trying to stave off a worldwide depression confident that we'll take care of things in our own house.
Speaking of our many problems — schools, crime, the environment, etc. — just how big a deal is Cobo in the pecking order? It seems to me that what needs to be done is a little prioritization of issues. Maybe it's worth the fight over Cobo — I don't know. I do know that the council's fiscal analyst Irv Corley Jr. told the august body that Cobo's net value is a negative $284 million when you take into account the repair and expansion costs, and the ongoing operational drain on city finances. (Detroit subsidizes Cobo at an annual cost of $15 million).
The point is that I would appreciate some rational analysis rather than finger-pointing, name-calling and a lawsuit. Maybe Mayor Cockrel didn't do his due dilligence with council as the deal was being finalized. But I've got to say, if this is the assurance we can give the feds that we are capable of not blowing a one-time chance to save our own asses — that's a deal-breaker.
We're standing here on the edge of an abyss. It's not even a question anymore of whether the city can come back and be what it once was. That's over. The question is can we reinvent ourselves as a smaller city that matters in a revamped regional economy. That takes visionary leadership, but I guess whitey won't let us get away with that.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org