In Hollywood they say that under all the tinsel is real tinsel. Well, in southeast Michigan politics, you could say that under all the crap is real crap. Take the debate on expanding Cobo Center, which lays bare all the dysfunctional relationships that have hindered us for decades.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson (the L stands for Lewis) outlined his proposal for funding the expansion earlier this month during his annual I'm the Big Dog of Oakland County address. Others refer to the speech as the state of the county, but ol' Lewis has been in charge for so long it seems that there should be nomenclature that acknowledges his ownership.
Anyhow, Patterson seemed to extend a glad hand toward Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, and he seemed to admit that Cobo does need a revamping. But you got the feeling that the other hand was behind his back with his fingers crossed. He said that he could get behind a new proposal by Ficano for the expanded Cobo. Then he gave the conditions under which he would agree.
They include opening a fourth Detroit casino, opening a mini-casino in Cobo, approving slot machines at the state's six horse racing tracks, a $1.50 surcharge on every passenger who boards or connects at Metro Airport and dipping into cigarette taxes that pay for Wayne County indigent health care and are slated for future bond obligations.
The thing is that expanding casino gambling would have to be voted on in a state referendum which could be, at soonest, during the 2008 elections. It's federal law that any money made from ticket fees goes to the airport. Slot machines and cigarette tax diversions, likewise, have major hurdles.
In essence what Patterson said was: "Yeah, I'll do this, when pigs fly."
Notice that none of Patterson's suggestions included any contribution from Oakland County. Patterson's entire attitude is Neanderthal (no offense to cavemen) in the emerging perspective that the entire southeast Michigan region needs to work together to solve common problems. Well, he does seem to like the idea of Cobo being run by a regional board made up of representatives from Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, the city of Detroit and the state as long as all the money is coming from somewhere else.
"What Patterson said, that kind of attitude, I think we've passed it," says Kurt Metzger, director of research in the Resource Investment and Community Partnerships department at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Or, at least, we should be past it.
"The discussion needs to be coming around the table on how are we going to make this work," Metzger adds. "He is either antagonistic or coming up with ideas that really, when you get below the surface, are antagonistic."
United Way is one of six area agencies working on One D: Transforming Regional Detroit, an effort to create new approaches to such issues as mass transit, social services, public safety, race, support for cultural institutions and redeveloping the city. The other organizations are the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, New Detroit Inc., Detroit Renaissance and the Regional Detroit Chamber of Commerce. One D members expect to present a report about their regional vision at the state's annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Labor Day weekend.
"You can't necessarily have Brooks leading that discussion," Metzger says. "It galls me that we just can't get beyond that."
It's not that everything Kilpatrick and Ficano do is golden. It's more that Patterson seems to be laying roadside IEDs along any trail that leads toward cooperation.
Although Patterson was educated at the Universities of Detroit high school and college now he is all about Oakland County, first, foremost and only. He was instrumental in creating its aura, its perception and its economic clout. And as much as he envisions the things that will benefit the county going forward free wireless Internet access for the entire county, Chinese language lessons in the public schools politically, he comes from an era that has passed on.
Back in 1971, before many of today's conservative pols were even trying on their political training bras, Patterson was a lightning rod in the fight against school busing to achieve racially integrated classrooms. As white flight from Detroit populated and created a Republican stronghold north of the city, Patterson was the pugnacious county prosecutor who was tough on crime and tried to bring the death penalty back to Michigan. Verbally he was the equal of the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young in colorful jousts that pitted city against suburbs. However, the political tide he rode never lifted him to national or even statewide office. In 1992 Patterson settled in as the perennial Oakland County executive, outliving other local officials of his generation such as Young and former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara.
Patterson's political style is ebbing, too, as southeastern Michigan changes. Oakland is still the place where Republicans hold most countywide seats, but it becomes less and less so each year. Republicans hold a slim one-seat majority on the county commission, and the county narrowly went to Al Gore in the 2000 election and to John Kerry in 2004.
Of course, Wayne County is still the place where Republicans needn't bother to run for political office, but there is a new current coursing down the Detroit River that makes that less and less an issue. People are realizing there are bigger fish to fry than political partisanship.
At least there is agreement among the principals in the discussion that the Cobo expansion would be good for the region. The North American International Auto Show, held at Cobo, is still the premier event of its kind, even though shows in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York compete for attention from auto companies and the media. An expanded Cobo would make for more exhibit space and expedited setup facilities and keep Detroit's show ahead of the game.
"You might be able to make the case that the auto show in and of itself is a special reason why a convention center matters more for metro Detroit than other reasons. That's a sensible argument," says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc. "The region and the state really benefit for making the auto show work as a premier event. ... Oakland County needs to help, not be a roadblock. Brooks is being shortsighted that the auto show isn't a regional asset. It's an example of how the region works against itself. ... The auto show is really important both symbolically and also strategically. ... If we were to lose the auto show, it would be a big black eye for the area."
Michigan Future Inc. is a nonprofit organization seeking ways for the state to succeed in the Information Age. One of the organization's initiatives is developing an action plan for revitalizing Michigan's central cities.
"We cannot have a strong region without a strong central city," says Metzger. "We cannot operate with the idea that Detroit doesn't matter. ... If we don't figure this out quickly we are going to be so far behind that we're never going to catch up."
Message to Brooks: Let's see if we can get some wings on those pigs.This is the beginning of a twice-monthly column by Larry Gabriel, a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org