Politics & Prejudices: Detroit: Could it have been different? 

As most everyone knows, this year we face an election likely to be one of the most important in our history.

Eleven years ago, Detroit had a mayoral election that was in many ways, very similar. Voters had a choice between a candidate who was skilled, proven, and competent — and a self-indulgent, utterly fascinating, criminal clown.

And Detroit voters totally blew it.

The parallels aren't exact, but are uncanny, and there may be a lesson here for all of us. As I write this, a racist and sexist candidate who is profoundly — and proudly — ignorant about how government works is running almost even in the polls. This, even though he cheerfully lies with abandon, and appears to be a poster boy for narcissistic personality disorder.

If anything, the choice was even clearer in Detroit in 2005, except for the fact that mayors don't have nuclear missiles. Eleven years may not appear to be a long time. But think back, if you can, to what Detroit was like just a decade ago.

Young hipsters were not flocking to Midtown. The streetlights were mostly off, and the city had no plans to get them back on. In fact, city workers told me they didn't think there was any way to make the deteriorating, ancient equipment work. Detroit's budget deficit was out of control.

Most news was being made by the steadily growing excesses of Kwame Kilpatrick, the so-called "hip-hop mayor," who, it was by then clear, regarded the city as his own personal candy store, piggy bank, and escort service.

The residents knew how dreadful it was; they were voting with their feet. This wasn't white flight; except for a few hardy or maybe foolhardy types, most of them had left years before.

This was the departure of the black middle class. Detroit lost an astonishing average of 24,000 people a year throughout the decade. Most were smart to leave.

Nobody knew yet about the extent of Kilpatrick's corruption, but enough of it was known that voters should have known better. He'd already been caught leasing a Lincoln Navigator for his wife at city expense and lying about it.

There was enough other evidence of his inappropriate lifestyle and flawed government to throw him out, and plenty of hints that much worse was to come.

Early on, it seemed as if the voters would dump the Kwamster. Freman Hendrix, then 55, was exactly the type of mayor the city needed. He'd spent his career working for the city and the county, mainly on financial affairs.

He was smart and tough when he needed to be; he had been the behind-the-scenes guy who put together the coalition to get taxpayers to support the building of Comerica Park.

He then spent eight years as Dennis Archer's chief of staff, and learned the city budgeting, inside and out.

Additionally, he was a classy human being, devoted to his wife, Elaine Lewis, an executive with the Detroit Tigers, and their two teenage kids. His not-so-secret passion wasn't high living and text messaging thugs, but Little League baseball; specifically, the Rosedale/Grandmont Red Sox.

Hendrix beat hip-hop, 45 percent to 34 percent, in the September primary. Kilpatrick looked like a goner.

But Kilpatrick was a more spellbinding speaker. There was a whispering campaign that said Hendrix wasn't "black enough," because his mother had been a European war bride.

The corporate tycoons largely wanted Kilpatrick too; they didn't live in Detroit; knew he was for sale, and felt he would do their bidding. On Election Night, in a stunning upset, he won.

Hendrix conceded gracefully, and largely disappeared from view. Detroiters had made a terrible mistake.

They paid for it soon enough, becoming a national laughingstock and financial basket case. Scandal was followed by resignation, trials, emergency management, and bankruptcy.

Today, however, Detroit has emerged from all that. The city is once again on its feet and solvent. To the shock of the so-called experts, black Detroiters elected an energetic, can-do white mayor who indeed did get the lights back on.

Nobody thinks much these days about federal inmate 44678-039, now in Oklahoma, who will be rotting in a cell until at least August 2037. Freman Hendrix isn't often in the news either — but he is still out there doing good.

He was a key member of the city charter revision commission. He took one last shot at being mayor, but lost a close, three-way race to Dave Bing in 2009.

Today, he is anything but bitter; now almost 66, he looks closer to 55. The intervening years have been as good to Hendrix as they've been bad for Kilpatrick.

Hendrix made enough in the private sector after government service that he no longer has to work full time.

But he still does what he can for the city. Currently, he's Detroit's only representative on the new Regional Transit Authority, and one of two on the Great Lakes Water Authority.

He didn't support Mike Duggan for mayor; nothing personal, but he felt that backing a white mayor would be "an admission African-Americans can't govern" the city.

But after Duggan won, he asked Hendrix to serve on those vitally important boards.

I wonder what Hendrix thought would have happened if he had won in 2005. The fact is that all Kwame's corruption accounted for just a tiny fraction of the city's massive debt.

Had Hendrix won, there would not have been the searing scandals. But the deep problems were still there.

Before that election, Joe Harris, the city's independent auditor for a decade, told me it didn't matter much who won; disaster and emergency management was on its way.

"You're right. It was inevitable," Hendrix finally told me. "I like to think if I'd been there, a lot of what we were later forced to do we might have been able to do."

But he doesn't really know.

Or maybe, just maybe, it took the Kilpatrick scandals and a city council with creatures like Charles Pugh to shock Detroiters into deciding to be grown-ups.

What Hendrix does know is this: His daughter Erin, a young attorney, recently took a $200,000 pay cut and left a Chicago law firm to come back to Detroit.

"Will the city make it? How could it not make it?" he said.

What I hope is that Duggan keeps putting Hendrix to work, or that the woman whose coordinated Detroit campaign he's now heading gives him a job next year.

Her name is Hillary Clinton.

Bill Schuette, statesman

Last week I talked about Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's latest move to waste taxpayer dollars by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and reinstate Michigan's ban on straight-ticket voting.

Any beginning law student knew this would never get anywhere; the nation's highest court generally only intervenes when you have conflicting decisions from the lower courts, and twice the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld Judge Gershwin Drain's finding that this law was unconstitutional.

Sure enough, the U.S. Supreme Court promptly gave the back of its hand to Schuette as well. But Schuette rose to the occasion.

"Now the Supreme Court has spoken, and I will respect that decision," his statement intoned. That's pretty gracious of him — especially since he had no other choice if he didn't want to secede from the union; the Supremes are the highest authority there is.

Can't you just imagine Schuette as governor?

More by Jack Lessenberry

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