Bing: Bobb should go 

Chatting with the mayor about Detroit's future

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Robert Bobb may — or may not — want to stick around and continue to run Detroit's public schools. But that's not what Mayor Dave Bing wants. During a wide-ranging interview last week, I asked him about the controversial emergency financial manager.

"He's made some hard decisions that had to be made, and I respect him for that. He had an impossible job from a fiscal standpoint." But when asked to give Bobb a grade, the mayor said, "Well, not an A, I don't think. He's got the teachers' association [union] obviously against him, and he's got a lot of the people in the community against him." When I asked if it were time for Bobb to go, and time for somebody new, the mayor said, "Yes," and "Oh, yeah."

The interview took place the day before a front-page story in The Detroit News appeared to advocate keeping Bobb in place. For months, Bobb talked as if he was willing, if not eager, to return to Washington, D.C., when his hitch in Detroit expires June 30.

But then the Legislature passed a new emergency financial manager law that would give Bobb control over academic matters as well, something the courts earlier ruled was beyond his jurisdiction.

After that, hints began that he might be willing to stay. However, the mayor did not only say it was time for someone new to be running DPS. He indicated that he thought that the future of education in his city would soon be mostly not in the Detroit Public Schools.

"If they are going to lose students out of DPS, we don't want to lose them out of the city of Detroit. People are now talking about systems of public education, rather than DPS. There are private schools, parochial schools, charters." Mayor Bing paused.

"You know, 40 percent of kids now go to charter schools and that number is only going to grow." He noted that Robert Bobb has proposed closing another batch of schools by the end of this year. Mayor Bing worries about the effect of these suddenly vacant buildings on their surrounding neighborhoods, and hopes charters fill at least some.

What he doesn't want, however, is to take control of the schools himself, although in the past the mayor has spoken as if mayoral oversight of DPS might not be a bad thing. "I think adding their deficit to our deficit might be a little overwhelming," he said.

Despite a month of budget woes, steadily more ominous news from Lansing and shockingly low census numbers, Dave Bing seemed upbeat and energetic, two years into the job.

The mayor, who has already signaled that he's running for re-election in 2013, had been amusedly exasperated by a story that day that criticized him for spending too much time in the office and not enough time pressing the flesh in the neighborhoods.

He knows that if he started doing more events, another story would soon appear asking why he wasn't at his desk. He shrugged.

"You know, the expectations in this job are impossible. Today, they want you to be all things to everybody." The truth is, he said, that he had to spend "an inordinate amount of time" chained to his desk.

"Kwame didn't get a lot done his last year, because he was trying to stay out of jail. Then Kenny [Cockrel] came in, and I don't think he got a lot done, because he was trying to get elected mayor."

In May 2009 Bing came into an office drowning in deficits. When I last had a long interview with him, that November, Bing, a businessman for many years (Bing Steel, later the Bing Group) told me the budget figures left by the Kilpatrick gang were largely fictitious. He said he couldn't ask President Obama for help until he figured out what the true numbers were. Eventually, the bean counters came up with a deficit of $330 million, which the Bing administration has reduced to $155 million. Indeed, he said shrinking the shortfall that much — during a recession that, for Detroit, has never really ended — was his proudest "truly Herculean" accomplishment in office.

But he said that number might creep back up if Gov. Rick Snyder's budget becomes "stark reality." Much has been made of the staunchly Democratic mayor's uncommonly warm relationship with the new GOP governor.

Is Snyder in fact different from a conventional Republican? "Oh, yeah, yeah," Bing says, smiling. But does he understand the reality that is Detroit? The mayor's face turned serious.

"You gotta be in Detroit to understand it. He needs to understand that we are going to need a little [financial] handholding. I recognize that he has a lot of other urban cities with problems and that he wants to get everyone to a level playing field. But Detroit needs some help to get there."

Last year the mayor made headlines when he said that the city's true unemployment was something like 45 percent. Now, with a national recovery officially under way, what does the mayor think that number is now?

"About the same. It hasn't changed much," he said. There is some recovery nationally, but not in Detroit. (James Rhein, an economic analyst for Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth, says the official figure for Detroit is more like 25 percent, but that doesn't count so-called "discouraged workers" who have dropped out of the labor force.)

There are those who think that it is only a matter of time before Detroit itself will have a state-appointed emergency financial manager.

"Everything we do here day-to-day is to avoid that happening," Bing told me. But he knows he can't rule it out.

What if a crisis hits and the governor were to offer to make the mayor the financial manager? My impression was that a part of Dave Bing would actually welcome the idea. "It would make it easier to do some things that we feel really need to be done," he said.

The governor's economic recovery plan for Michigan is essentially tied to betting the state on one idea: Slash business taxes by more than half, and wager that will bring a flood of new job-creators swarming in. Unlike many of the gung-ho supply-siders in the Legislature, Dave Bing has actually built and run a business.

What does he think of the tax-slashing scheme? "Well, that will help," he said cautiously. "But smart businessmen are interested in both the bottom line and what they can make. That doesn't necessarily mean they will always reinvest."

When they do create jobs, there's usually a lag time, too. It doesn't happen overnight. Nevertheless, the mayor is upbeat. When I arrived at his office, he was talking to Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano about the possibility of sharing services.

"People are getting a different feeling about Detroit, that we are traveling in the right direction." He flashed a smile that made him seem suddenly younger than his 67 years.

You could even glimpse the fresh-faced rookie who arrived to join the Detroit Pistons back in 1966, only to be turned down when he tried to qualify for a mortgage. Did he really think Detroit could return to solvency and prosperity on his watch?

"Solvency, yes. Solvency I think can be a reality over three to five years. Prosperity" — he paused.

"Prosperity is down the road."

More by Jack Lessenberry

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