Our Bizarro Detroit

Is Dave Bing the invisible mayor?

It seems that Kwame Kilpatrick just won't go away. In the past few weeks, the former mayor has garnered more ink in local news pages than the current mayor. And given that the city of Detroit is in multiple crises that Mayor Dave Bing is supposed to be pulling us out of, it seems strange.

In the old DC comic books, there was a recurring storyline about Bizarro World where everything is done opposite of the way things are done here on Earth. In fact, it was also known as Htrae — earth spelled backward. The Bizarro Superman flew backward and said goodbye when arriving. Doing things the "right" way is considered a crime on Htrae.

Things may be generally bizarre in Detroit, but I'm actually thinking about Bing and Kilpatrick as polar opposites when it comes to style. Kilpatrick loved media attention; the camera was his friend, and making a public show of almost anything that came out of the mayor's office seemed de rigueur.

And when things went bad, the media couldn't get enough of him. Even now, he's in the news regarding the missing computer from his old office, money paid to the former federal police monitor Sheryl Robinson Wood, and alleged bid-rigging with his old pal Bobby Ferguson.

Bing, on the other hand, seems to be the invisible man; there is little flash or sparkle in his demeanor or way of doing things. Lately, if not for Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, who seems to be smitten with Bing, we'd hardly know he's mayor.

In the past month Bing went to Turin, Italy, to study how that city downsized itself when business for the car company Fiat, its major economic vehicle, went flat in 1980.

Other than the Turin trip, most of what we've heard of Bing is that he accepted a $2 million donation from General Motors for a community center, that he was at the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and that he and City Council aren't talking to each other. Yes, he's putting together a strategic plan to revitalize the city, but he's not talking about that yet.

Outside of the Turin trip, mostly what he has had to say to the media is "no comment," at least that's what we hear from his spokesman Dan Lijana.

You decide which one is the Bizarro mayor.

"He has not been that sort of No. 1 citizen that people can rally around, that person who feels our pain and feels our joy," says Greg Bowens, a public relations professional and former mayor Dennis Archer's spokesman.

Kilpatrick certainly seemed to feel our pain although he eventually became the cause of it. And we haven't recovered from that yet.

I'm not turning against Bing's Detroit Works approach to setting a new course for the city. I believe the stated process of holding forums in the community to gather information and use it in creating a long-term plan is the right way to go.

However, I do find it amusing to ponder the contradictions of our body politic. For instance, the big knock against Ken Cockrel Jr.'s 2009 mayoral bid was that in about six months as interim mayor he had his chance and hadn't done anything significant — that he lacked urgency.

Well, we've had Bing for a year-and-a-half and I'd say he hasn't had a signature accomplishment yet. If urgency is where the bar is set, then where is Bing's urgency?

"I'm very careful to not be sour grapes about the mayor," says Cockrel. "I might comment about policy issues at the council table, but I'm not going to make it my career to criticize Dave Bing. All I can say is that I agree with that assessment. He said he was only going to be a one-term mayor. If so, he better pick up his program pretty quick. ... Regarding the Detroit Works stuff, I do support that process; the concept is great. He does have my full support."

But, at best, we won't see a plan for another year, more than halfway through Bing's supposed single-term administration. It better be a hell of a plan if he's going to see much of it through as a lame duck.

Of course, if he continues his invisible act, he'll have to remind folks who he is by the time he has the plan in hand.

Archer's former deputy mayor, Freman Hendrix, says that Bing has "few options" for some decisions he has to make. "My understanding is that he's held off on specific ideas until it's all together," Hendrix says.

"That's absolutely the right approach if he's going to do something as bold and unprecedented as we need. ... He's doing the kind of things he needs to do."

Hendrix, who first ran against Bing in the primary to complete Kilpatrick's term but supported him in the run-off and became a member of Bing's transition team, says he's been too busy to pay much attention to insider politics at City Hall lately.

Running a uniformed security guard company and sitting on the Greektown Casino board of directors, leave him watching from "30,000 feet" away as he put it.

But even those who are paying attention don't have much idea of what is going on. And the small group Hood Research has already started a recall petition drive because "Bing has plans for gentrification" and "Detroit deserves immediate relief."

I suspect that part of the reason Bing holds his cards so close to his chest is that, being a businessman, he has a natural disinclination to divulge his plans.

I also suspect that some of what he will have to present to Detroiters will be controversial, and he prefers to roll those things out in the context of an overall plan rather than piecemeal.

"People believed that the business acumen he brought to the table would help us get our finances in order, see us through the red into the black," says Bowens. "None of that has come to be and maybe it was too much to expect.

"Maybe the expectation was, 'At least he won't embarrass us.' If that is the expectation, then he is doing that job incredibly well with the exception of a few early gaffes. ... The energy that it takes for people to feel like they are a part of something really hasn't been there. And the mayor sets the tone for the rest of the city. We want something magnificent to happen to galvanize not just Detroit but the whole region."

Bing is involved in politics now. Despite the urge to run our governments like they are businesses, there is a whole other set of issues involved, especially public accountability. I still believe in the process that the mayor is pursuing to create a plan for the city's future. And if he sees the need to withhold details until it's done, then so be it.

However, it shouldn't be like pulling teeth to get the mayor to say anything about anything.

That's a bit bizarre — unless we really are living in Tiorted.