- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

DETROIT | Voters in this blighted, shamed and all-but-given-up-on city will head to the polls May 5 to elect a new mayor, but anyone looking for a savior need only take note of its economic disaster and a government bordering on a Neil Simon farce.

Even as the two candidates in the race, businessman Dave Bing and interim Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., offer prescriptions of renewal and a vision for rebirth, the Motor City’s governmental foibles and ongoing economic and political woes would seem to loom far greater than any one leader could ever fix.

There’s the $300 million deficit and rising unemployment, which could get worse with the increasing likelihood of bankruptcy for two of the city’s Big Three: General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC. There’s the bankrupt school system. There’s the potential loss of its showcase worldwide event - the North American International Auto Show.

There’s the City Council with a past so outrageous that a neighboring county executive said its members belonged in the zoo, instead of deciding that zoo’s finances. Then there’s the last mayor, whose sex-and-texts scandal ended a corruption saga that put him in jail and is the reason for this election.

“It’s almost a moot point, isn’t it?” said Sterling Johnson, a political science professor at Central Michigan University, of the election’s possible impact.

“I don’t think that this is a task that can be accomplished by a mere mayor,” he said of putting the city back on a path to viability. “Detroit doesn’t seem to have any capacity or the collective desire to turn itself around. So for me, this new mayor is going to be akin to a hamster on a wheel, just running” and changing very little.

The hamster wheel could well be in the form of the City Council.

“You have got in that council probably the worst council in the history of Detroit and certainly all of the United States right now. They are a disaster, but any mayor who is elected has to work with them,” said Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

Here’s a sampling of what the new mayor has to work with:

• Council member Kwame Kenyatta, who has said he will make his own run for mayor in November, walked out on his mortgage in December, saying property values had sagged so much in the city that he was paying for a home now valued more than its worth. Critics said his abandoning his responsibilities showed a lack of leadership for a city badly in need of some.

• Council member Monica Conyers, who has sparred with the mayor and others, drew criticism for using a city police detail to transport her son to his private suburban school each day. She said she needed the protection and was urged to use it by police. Mr. Cockrel, as mayor, has also used police for this purpose, but to local Detroit public schools.

• Mrs. Conyers, wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, also drew fire when it was discovered she had helped her brother, who is a convicted felon, get a city job. When first confronted about suspected nepotism, she denied the man in question was her brother, but later changed her story, the Detroit News reported. The brother eventually was fired over issues with absenteeism. Last week, he was given a five-year-sentence on weapons charges involving pointing a shotgun at a group of people.

• At a hearing on a deal to expand Cobo Center, the city’s big money-making convention center, council member Barbara Rose-Collins said the city could not give up control because the in-coming board would include members from neighboring counties whom she accused of racism. During the hearing, Mrs. Rose-Collins and fellow council member Martha Reeves, a former Motown recording star, broke into a chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

In addition to the council’s internal issues, the next mayor inherits a list of huge woes to fix.

Many residents have fled the city for safer and more affluent suburbs, leaving Detroit all but a ghost town. While its population was 2 million in the 1950s, it has shrunk to about 800,000 spread out across a wide city-limits area that is divided into pockets of poverty and urban decay. What was once seen as despair, some say has weakened into a malaise of acceptance as the tax base erodes and growth and city services sputter.

Already the city’s public schools have been taken over by an emergency financial officer appointed by the governor. Like the city, the school district is facing a budget shortfall - $306 million according to recent audits - that could lead to the closure of up to 50 schools and related job losses.

“Detroit is unique. It has no economic base,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s the most segregated city in the country by race or by class. I think it should be put into receivership. Detroit should be going into bankruptcy along with the Big Three.”

But the mayoral candidates don’t agree.

Mr. Bing, the beloved Detroit Pistons basketball star who runs a successful steel business, has said he will leverage the power of outside business connections to mend the city’s tattered finances and spark economic growth.

He has pledged to return the mayor’s salary of about $176,000 per year to the city to help hire more police, and has said he is organizing a crisis management team that will hit the ground running when he takes office. His business moxie and outsider status to city government have earned him the endorsement of the city’s two metropolitan newspapers, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

Mr. Ballenger said Mr. Cockrel, who assumed the office after a scandal forced out Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is not an inspiring go-getter as a candidate and future city leader.

“Cockrel is an accidental mayor,” Mr. Ballenger said. “If he wins the election on May 5, he’ll have won it for six months,” until another election is held to fill the city’s next regular four-year mayoral term.

Mr. Cockrel, who has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, has benefited by his late father’s name recognition and solid political record, Mr. Ballenger said, not by his own record or political vision.

“The name game is important in Detroit,” he said. “He hasn’t gotten to where he is from tremendous achievement. Nobody can look at Ken Cockrel and look at anything in his life that would say that this is the person to elevate who would fix all Detroit’s problems. He really is an accident.”

Mr. Cockrel may have lost political ground in his efforts to save the Cobo Center. The City Council voted to block a deal, being pushed by the interim mayor, that would have handed management over to a regional authority. The well-known arena and exhibition hall, which is home to the top auto show in the world, is badly in need of renovations that would cost the city $288 million, which it couldn’t afford without the regional authority.

Mr. Cockrel vetoed the council’s resolution, but a lower court and then an appeals court ruled that Mr. Cockrel’s veto was improper. The Cobo deal, which Mr. Cockrel had touted as showing his ability to lead, now appears to be dead.

Some supporters, however, argue that Mr. Cockrel, while not a bombastic presence at City Hall, has brought much-needed stability to a fractured city government in his role as interim mayor.

Of his opponent, Mr. Bing, Mr. Ballenger said his outsider status is both an asset and also a possible hindrance. He is not bogged down in the ongoing political infighting that has plagued the council. He also has shown that he can work with people outside of the city and that he has interest in being a regional mayor.

But, said Mr. Ballenger, Mr. Bing also has to show Detroit voters “that he is one of them, and he’s already got a problem in that respect.”

Mr. Bing lived outside of the city before seeking the job as mayor and later took residence in the city so he could run, sparking criticism that he was an opportunist and not a real Detroiter.

“He moved out of the city and then moved back to run and that has hounded him and caused him a problem and that may be his undoing,” Mr. Ballenger said, noting that while Mr. Bing has held a small lead, current polls are tightening.

“If he gives people a feeling that he is not one of them and he’s more interested in being a regional mayor, that he is maybe ‘selling out’ Detroit’s interests to surrounding units of government, then he’s going to have a lot of problems with constituent groups in the city and with the City Council.”

Mr. Ballenger said that the trauma city residents endured over the personal and political foibles of Mr. Kilpatrick, who came in with sky-high expectations but later went to jail for lying in a police whistleblower scandal, means that any new mayor who keeps his nose clean will likely come out shining.

“Kilpatrick left under such a cloud with so much corruption attached to his name that if either Bing or Cockrel simply run a scandal-free administration and appear to be transparent - let the sun shine in and be candid, open and honest - they will get major points from the news media and the public,” Mr. Ballenger said. “Everybody will be happy that at least they’ve got an administration that is above board.”

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