What Detroit Needs Is an HNIC

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.

Since that time, corruption, nepotism and incompetence has always been a recurring cancer no matter who the mayor has been, whether Albert Cobo, Jerome Cavanaugh, Young or current Mayor Bing.


In addition to Reading, there was Mayor Charles Bowles — his 1930 election came in part from Ku Klux Klan support — who was recalled based on corruption allegations. Former mayor and later City Councilman Louis Miriani was convicted for income tax evasion in 1969. Charles Beckham, who ran the Water and Sewerage Department, was found guilty in 1984 of taking a bribe in exchange for a contract, and in 1994 former police Chief William Hart was convicted of embezzling more than $2 million. Young himself was the subject of five federal investigations, but none of them ever stuck.

So with all this corruption in Detroit's history, why does it need an HNIC? Hasn't the leadership shown that it's chronically corrupt?


Well, because Michigan's Gov. Rick Snyder is pretty much set to install an emergency financial manager, or EFM, for the city, it essentially makes Detroit a province of the state capital, Lansing. It means that citizen voting rights basically have been evaporated, much to the chagrin of many and the glee of others. It weakens the City Council and puts it in a position of forced surrender, even though they are appealing the governor's decision. It turns Mayor Bing into "the Help."

Though the intention is to fix an abysmally broken financial structure — in this case a $300 million deficit and $14 billion in long-term liabilities — installing an EFM essentially is a message to Detroiters that they simply are not smart enough to wash their own behinds.


But having grown up there, I know that is not true.

Believe me, I was there for the worst days of the crack epidemic, the gang Young Boys Inc., even the Errol Flynns. I remember Young's South African Krugerrand controversy, as well as the decision to let casinos move in, which I still believe was ill-conceived. The people wanted, even begged, for some direction to keep the varied communities intact.


Through it all, there has been a lack of strong leadership to say, "This is what's good for Detroit. Let's be smart, let's right this ship, and because I've got the plan and political will behind me, I will lead you out of this mess." Meanwhile, that infamous divide along 8 Mile Road has become wider and wider.

Now, I don't think there is some messiah capable of miracles on Woodward Avenue. Young himself said, "There is no brilliant single stroke that is going to transform the water into wine or straw into gold." But effective, Teflon leadership with nothing to gain from a kickback, whose actual interest is the betterment of the city for its own sake and whose purpose for being a city official is to guarantee complete social and economic democracy — and, most important, autonomy — to the citizenry, is the missing link in a city that has badly needed it for the better part of the last century.


Will Detroit ever get an HNIC? Hard to say. That's not going to happen with the governor choosing one for them, and the EFM will be there for at least 18 months. There is a mayoral election this year, with several vying for the office. With the female candidates Krystal Crittendon (former corporation counsel for the City of Detroit Law Department) and former State Rep. Lisa Howze in the running, the city may well get its first female HNIC — or even a white HNIC, with Mike Duggan, former head of the Detroit Medical Center and former Wayne County deputy executive, running.  

But to fix what ails the city, no matter what the new leader is called, an HNIC is what that person will have to be.


Madison Gray is one of many native Detroiters currently holding it down in the People's Republic of Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.