What Detroit Needs Is an HNIC

With a former mayor convicted and an emergency chief in the works, it's time for an old-school boss.

Kwame Kilpatrick (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News)
Kwame Kilpatrick (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — In her best-seller Dead Aid, noted African economist Dambisa Moyo said that what is needed for many poor countries suffering from corrupt, incompetent or ineffective leadership is a “benevolent dictator,” whom she defined as someone who is brave and powerful enough to push through necessary reforms.

Despite the debate that ensued after she released that book (which, by the way, I recommend), instantly that conjured the image of an archetype long spoken of among black folk in business and politics: the HNIC.

No need to spell out what that acronym means here (fine — if you’re that young, it means “head Negro in charge”), but if you make it plain, based on what Moyo was describing, an HNIC is that person who can come in, take control, get everyone behind him or her, straighten out the books and frankly scare the hell out of anyone who would dare challenge the foundation set up by an HNIC.

So when I looked at Detroit last week and ached for my hometown, I remembered, of course, Coleman Young, the five-term mayor who reportedly had the acronym engraved in a plaque on his desk. Young was a controversial firebrand who was long accused of corruption himself. He could be abrasive, as well as opaque when it came to the media, and he stayed in at least one term too long without grooming a protégé. The type of HNIC the city needs now would not have these shortcomings but would set the kind of tone that the mayor did, and would have learned from Young’s mistakes.

Right or wrong, Young was seen as a leader first. The charismatic person everyone wanted to get behind and support. An HNIC in this case would be someone with the tenacity and the obstinate positioning on what is right for the city, its finances and its infrastructure. Without that type of leadership to hold a place like Detroit together, and have voters expect no less when they go to the polls, the result is the absolute governmental calamity the city has undergone over the past decade.

The conviction this week of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on racketeering charges illustrates that point. He’s not the only one who got in trouble: Two dozen city officials, including former City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, wound up incarcerated based on the same FBI probe that eventually led to Kilpatrick’s guilty verdict.

Kilpatrick, who was elected mayor in 2001 at the tender age of 31, had then been seen as one to watch in the black political stratosphere. Once called “the hip-hop mayor” for the generation he represented, he failed to keep his nose clean by shaking down contractors and basically turning his administration into a collection scheme. Drama from a sexting scandal and, more important, the kickbacks he was convicted of receiving damned his career and pretty much eliminated his chances of being the HNIC he might have been aspiring to be.

Meanwhile, the current mayor, former basketball player and entrepreneur David Bing, has found out just how deep the sinkhole is in which the city flounders, and has not been able to find common ground with the City Council or the citizens to help him climb out.

But the trouble in City Hall, in the business community and in the street didn’t nearly start with Bing, Kilpatrick or Young.

Few now remember the days of the Purple Gang, who bootlegged liquor from Canada for Al Capone while city officials either looked the other way or took payola in the deals, or the corrupt tenure of Richard Reading, whose graft-ridden administration resulted in a 1940 bribery conviction. These were days when radio commentators like Gerald Buckley were brazenly executed in hotel lobbies, and when blacks were hardly allowed to live anywhere west of Hastings Street, but were certainly exploited by corrupt politicians who extorted money made off Black Bottom numbers runners.