Detroiters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a mayor to finish out Kwame Kilpatrick’s unfinished second term—and then they’ll get ready to do it all over again.
The prize for the winner is a city in distress. Crime is up; schools are down; and unemployment is at 20 percent. Last year, the Detroit Lions made macabre sports history by turning in a 0-16 season. Chrysler is going into bankruptcy, selling a 20 percent stake to Italian auto giant Fiat—which now has its eye on General Motors’ European division. Outsiders are buying up foreclosed lots in Detroit for pennies on the dollar, and in the wake of his city hall sex scandal, Kilpatrick, once hailed as the hip-hop mayor, might have 99 problems—but jail is no longer one of them.
So which hometown hero will Detroiters call on?
Ten years ago, Eminem crystallized Detroit’s blue-collar lament, rapping that he was “tired of not drivin’ a BM” and “tired of not workin’ at GM.” But he only diagnoses, he doesn’t treat.
What about Suzanne de Passe? The one-time Berry Gordy henchwoman and mastermind behind the greatest-ever rendition of “Billie Jean” could be the right woman for the job if for no other reason than that de Passe once cast Vanessa L. Williams to portray her on screen. That kind of chutzpah might be the only cure for what ails Detroit.
But for Motor City voters, Tuesday’s election is going to be like taking a multiple choice test after studying for an essay exam. Detroit’s woes come packaged with all the extras, while the city’s leadership options are all base models:
A. Ken Cockerel Jr.
He’s the Hillary Clinton in this race—the son of the late Ken Cockerel Sr., a revered figure in Detroit politics. As the sitting city council president, Cockerel was elevated to acting mayor as a result of Kilpatrick’s departure. Generally regarded as solid but unspectacular, Cockerel, who placed second in the primary, is backed by organized labor and Congressman John Conyers.
B. Dave Bing
He’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race. The former Detroit Pistons star and steel-manufacturing executive has pledged to serve only one full term. He’s endorsed by the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and Jesse Jackson—but Bing doesn’t actually live in Detroit proper and doesn’t have government experience.
C. All of the Above
If Bing, who narrowly won the primaries, prevails, then the city gets both men. Cockerel will return to the city council presidency, and Bing, accustomed to the flexibility of the private sector, will be forced to work with Cockerel to overhaul the city’s bureaucracy.
D. None of the Above
Despite bypassing an expensive special election to fill a council seat in 2004, Detroit’s city council approved the special election this time at a cost of an additional $3 million to taxpayers, rather than wait until November. The result is that Bing, Cockerel and anyone else can get right back in the game. Tuesday’s winner only has three months to get a firm grip on the wheel before facing the voters again in an August primary. It’s not exactly a formula for taking partisan politics out of municipal (ahem) affairs.
Cockerel’s move to sell Detroit’s Cobo Center to a tri-county management authority became the campaign’s signature issue, even though both remaining candidates support the sale: It’s symbolic of long-standing tensions between overwhelmingly black Detroit and its largely white suburbs. The city council defeated the proposal, citing a potential loss of jobs and tax revenue for the city; even though Cobo siphons Detroit’s general fund, and the biggest event held at the aging facility is the North American International Auto Show—the annual coming-out party for a withering industry.
Council member and mayoral primary contender Kwame Kenyatta summed up his vote for the convention-center sale in a Detroit Free Press op-ed thusly: Hanging on to Cobo “will not improve the quality of life in Detroit’s neighborhoods.”
Detroit was one of the first major cities to turn to the post-civil rights era generation for a chief executive, but the unraveling of Kilpatrick’s administration only exacerbated the city’s problems. After this election is over, Detroit will still be missing the Cory Booker (Newark), Kevin Johnson (Sacramento) or Adrian Fenty (Washington, D.C.) it needs to refurbish both the engine and exterior of what remains proudly the blackest city in America.
One day, Detroit may get a mayor who can run an American classic on alternative fuels. This time around, the answer is probably “D,” none of the above.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.