Talking points

Metro Times recently conducted lengthy interviews with six of the leading candidates vying to become Detroit’s next mayor. Editor Larry Gabriel, managing editor W. Kim Heron and news editor Curt Guyette grilled the contenders on everything from their plans for neighborhood redevelopment to views on such issues as the living wage ordinance and casino placement. But in addition to their plans and positions, we were also trying to evaluate how they performed sitting across the table from three journalists hurling questions at them for 90 minutes or more. Excerpts and impressions from those interviews follow.

The first thing you notice about Kwame Kilpatrick is how big he is.

Sporting the kind of chest that makes a beer keg seem small by comparison, it is easy to see why he was a star football player back in the day — which, in his case, wasn’t all that long ago. But forget any allusions to the dumb-jock stereotype, because the other thing immediately apparent in Kilpatrick is the quality of his brain.

During the long interview, he’s exceptionally nimble in the handling of our questions, sometimes infectiously expansive, and offers a vision of the city’s future that is both high-tech (no other candidate, as far as we can tell, is talking about the importance of laying fiber-optic cable) and multicultural, stressing that his administration would reflect Detroit’s racial and ethnic diversity — not only black and white, but Arab, Asian and Hispanic as well. He also makes a major theme of getting more money from Lansing and Washington.

In short, he comes off as being as sharp as he is big.

It is not an accident that, by the tender age of 31, the former schoolteacher has been able to maneuver himself into the position of minority leader in the Michigan House of Representatives. Good political genes may also deserve some of the credit. The guy, after all, is the son of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick and Bernard Kilpatrick, chief of staff to Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara.

The McNamara connection proved to be an interesting topic during our interview. Much has been made of Kwame Kilpatrick’s connection to McNamara’s “political machine.”

Kilpatrick downplayed the significance. He said that he was grateful to have McNamara’s endorsement, but by the same token he’s received a wide variety of endorsements, from the Black Slate to the Community Coalition.

But there’s a significant difference between a political group’s endorsement and backing from McNamara, who is perceived to have the ability to direct many, many thousands of special-interest dollars into the coffers of the candidates he backs.

Shouldn’t we be concerned about that? After all, it could be argued that one of the big reasons the Archer administration failed to significantly improve life in most Detroit neighborhoods is that money from major corporations and developers directed his attention toward big-ticket projects downtown and upscale housing developments.

But Kilpatrick doesn’t see a nexus between campaign contributions and his actions as a politician.

“A layman’s view of politicians always is that you’re beholden to the people that gave you money. It’s really kind of funny to me,” said Kilpatrick.

We, on the other hand, think it’s kind of funny that politicians are always trying to convince us that special interests repeatedly hand over huge contributions without expecting anything in return.

As for the McNamara influence?

“I think you all give him more power than he has,” said Kilpatrick. “I hope one day people are sitting in a room talking about how much power Kwame Kilpatrick has, because I think it is created in the minds of a lot of people here. I think the real power in this town is the people, and the people are deciding who they want to be their mayor.”

Experience. Gil Hill says he has it. In abundance. And just to make sure you don’t miss the message, let us point out that it is the City Council president’s firm belief that in this race — one in which, if a recent poll is to be believed, the 69-year-old Hill is locked in a statistical dead heat with the youthful Kwame Kilpatrick, while Nick Hood places a distant third and the others are much further behind — experience is what counts.

“Quite frankly, I’m the best candidate. I feel the experience I have, over the years, the 30 years I had on the Police Department and the 12 years I had on the City Council, I have the experience and I have the knowledge to put plans together and I do have the plans to turn this city around almost immediately.”

The first target will be the city’s beleaguered neighborhoods.

“We intend to absolutely revolutionize the way city services are delivered here in Detroit,” he said.

And how does he intend to do that?

By expanding the number of neighborhood city halls from 10 to 13 — “one for each police precinct.” The neighborhood city halls will become key to monitoring citizen complaints about city services and assessing the state of the city.

But the revolution won’t stop there. Department heads will be held accountable, progress will be constantly monitored. Moreover, staffing will be adequate enough to ensure services are provided. When someone walks into a neighborhood city hall with a complaint, they will be able to rest assured that with Gil Hill as mayor they won’t need to know “a councilman or a judge to get the simple things done.”

Given the level of dysfunction that is generally attributed to Detroit’s bureaucracy, we press Hill on the issue. He can use the word revolutionize all he wants, but to us, the plan he’s laying on the table sounds, well, tepid. Having glorified complaint takers doesn’t seem like it’s going to shake up a bureaucracy.

Hill remains unruffled.

“Well, as I told you before, that process is going to be monitored daily. They will take that information and pass it to the proper department … and that department will take care of that business. We are going to do that, because the people are paying for that, and each and every department head will understand that.”

And if that is not understood, then changes will be made.

“We are going to revolutionize the way city services are delivered here.”

That subject exhausted, we move on. The topic of the Police Department comes up, and we have a Dick Nixon circa 1968 flashback (“I have a secret plan to end the war.”) when Hill says he has a strategy mapped out to improve the force by redeploying officers, but won’t disclose any specifics at this point.

OK. But what about the Justice Department investigation, and stories this paper has produced showing evidence that the department helps smooth over problems during its investigations of officers involved in shootings.

“I don’t agree with that,” said Hill. He doesn’t see any cover-ups occurring. The problem, in his eyes, is that some investigators “just aren’t competent enough.”

The police veteran’s pride showed when recalling that, when he was involved investigating other cops, “I conducted it like any other homicide investigation and let the chips fall where they may.”

Hill also brushed off the suggestion that his close ties to casino interests could be a point of concern. The casinos like him, he says, because he was an early proponent.

“I didn’t involve myself in casinos to become personally rich,” said Hill. “ I was warned that I had sacrificed my political career by engaging in that casino fight. But I did it because I wanted to see the jobs and the synergy here.”

During our interview with Nick Hood III, there came a moment for us that, though not quite an epiphany, was at the very least enlightening.

It was early in the session, which began with us asking Hood to explain why he thought we should endorse him.

First off, he said, there’s the experience factor. With eight years on the council, he has a track record of looking out for the city’s neighborhoods, which has emerged as this campaign’s key issue and dominates Hood’s platform.

As an example, he points out that he is the author of an ordinance that decriminalizes certain zoning violations, which he says has the potential to increase revenue by having violators pay fines at City Hall rather than having to get tied up in the judicial system.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, Hood is hammering away at the need to improve life in the city’s neighborhoods. He wants to give away vacant land to individuals, nonprofits and developers who will build new, affordable housing. He promised to redeploy police so that there will be more scout cars patrolling neighborhoods, and he would use federal block grant dollars to enhance after-school education programs.

“My platform is pretty well thought out,” he told us. “I don’t claim to have all the answers for Detroit, but I am continually reaching out to people who have expertise in various areas. And combining that with my basic sensibilities and experience level in the city, I think it makes for a very humanocentric platform, which is part of where I think you need to be as a city.”

For the record, Hood is the only candidate who used the word “humanocentric” during our endorsement interviews.

He also talked about not being beholden to any special interests.

“I am the most independent of the three main candidates running. I do not have the backing of the big political machine. I’m not backed by a casino. But I do have the love of an awful lot of people in this city. I gained 96,000 votes four years ago as the third-highest vote-getting city councilman, and I did that without taking one dime of casino dollars.”

But Hood has been raising money. He talked of attending a fundraiser in Atlanta hosted by former Mayor Andrew Young, and another hosted by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Then Hood started to tell us about his Dollars for Detroit program. With nearly a million residents, he figures that if everyone in town were to send him just one buck, that would be more than enough for him to compete financially with the special interests backing the front-runners.

Then came the moment.

“Not a day goes by,” he told us, “where I don’t get at least a dollar.” On some days as much as five dollars comes pouring in.

Hood sees that as proof of his “connectedness” to the “little people, the average people who don’t have a lot of money.”

We saw it as — and we’re trying to be kind here — underwhelming. Polls show Hood is trailing the front-runners by a considerable margin, so the few bucks a day he’s generating isn’t exactly evidence he’s building the groundswell of support he’ll need to make it into the November runoff.

Which is part of the reason we came away from this interview thinking: For a veteran politician with eight years experience on a rough-and-tumble Detroit City Council, Nick Hood seems oddly guileless. Now, there’s no doubt that is a quality you want in a pastor, which Hood, with his master’s from the Yale University Divinity School, is. But the question we here end up debating among ourselves is: Is it a trait you’d hope to see in the mayor of a city facing the problems this one has?

When talking about endorsing Charles Beckham for mayor, the subject sooner or later turns to, uh, you know, uh, that, uh …

That felony conviction.

The hesitancy is on our part, not Beckham’s. He’s at ease discussing the prison time spent for taking a bribe while serving as head of the city’s Department of Water & Sewerage in the Young administration.

And it’s not like we wouldn’t ask the question. You have to. It’s just that it’s kind of uncomfortable, even for people who make a living asking uncomfortable questions.

Making it all the harder is the fact that Beckham comes across as such a good guy. Open, easygoing, quick to laugh. As someone observed recently on a radio call-in show, if it weren’t for that conviction Beckham would likely be among the front-runners instead of languishing in a group that polls show to only be pulling single-digit support. The guy is obviously bright, is able to articulate his views on what’s wrong with the city and what should be done to fix the problems.

He also thinks that the polls are wrong. And, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it’s probably unwise to completely discount the views of a guy schooled in politics at the feet of a master such as Young.

A lot of thought has gone into this campaign. It is, he says, something the Beckham family has been talking about for the last four or five years. And he jumped into the race before Archer made the surprise announcement that he wouldn’t seek a third term, so it is clear, says Beckham, that his campaign isn’t based on “opportunism.”

“I come from a school where a good leader forces other leaders to be better leaders.”

He also shows a sense of being kind of a wheeler and a dealer. And we mean that in a good sense. For example, when we ask about the Compuware deal, and the land giveaway and $70-million tax break the software company is getting for locating its headquarters downtown, he offers the perspective that such incentives are necessary to capture that caliber of development, but that the city should demand more in return.

Use the deal to also help leverage spots for Detroiters on the company’s board of directors. Get a commitment to open up more top management jobs to people of color. And obtain guarantees that a significant percentage of contracted goods and services will go to other companies located here.

“We need to create a policy that says we’re going to take care of Detroiters. The end result of not capturing money and wealth in your city. It looks like it looks. People can’t maintain their homes, people don’t own their homes. The jobs don’t pay well. It’s a continuing economic cycle. And we have to turn that around. … [For] every development, every initiative, every thing that goes on, there has to be a mind-set that says we’re going to get as many qualified Detroiters — African-Americans and other minority groups, since that is the prevalence of what’s in Detroit — substantively involved in the process.

“I’ve seen other cities do it. Washington, D.C.’s done it, Cleveland’s done it, Pittsburgh’s done it. It can be done. But it takes leadership that says that, by policy, this is what we are going to do.”

And, then, finally, there’s the matter of that felony conviction. Beckham doesn’t flinch. For starters, he maintains his innocence, saying he got caught in an FBI probe that was determined to nail Coleman Young. Deals were offered. All Beckham had to do was help bring Young down and he would have walked away unscathed.

But that’s not the sort of thing a stand-up guy does, and Beckham wants you to know, in no uncertain terms, he is a stand-up guy.

“I’ve never run from that,” he says of the conviction. “It’s part of me, and part of what makes me who I am today. That’s what I’m made of. And it tells you something about the character of Charlie Beckham.”

What’s frustrating is the people who want to focus only on that.

“I’ve been to prison,” he says. “So what? Let’s get over that, and look at my whole record. If you do that, you won’t find anybody more committed to helping Detroit. You won’t find anybody more prepared to help Detroit.”

We may be wrong, but going back over our notes and listening to the tapes, over the course of six interviews with the leading mayoral contenders, only one candidate uttered the word poverty.

That might not be unusual in some other cities, but in Detroit — where an estimated 50 percent of the children live at or below the poverty level — it seems that this issue would be high on the list of candidate concerns.

To be fair, a number of the candidates talked about the need to generate more wealth in the city, and to see minorities gain more of a share of the municipal pie.

But none, other than Bill Brooks, actually uses the word itself, or points out directly that, for this city to move forward, vast numbers of people will need to be lifted out of poverty.

Almost as surprising as the general absence of the word is the fact that it is Brooks who ultimately uses it. After all, this is that businessman, widely labeled as a Republican, who has the crazy notion that he can actually get elected in a Democratic stronghold such as Detroit, right?

Wrong, says Brooks, at least when it comes to him being a Republican.

“I’ve always been an independent,” Brooks tells us.

We’re skeptical. After all, this is someone who served as an assistant secretary of labor during the first Bush administration. He was a vice president at General Motors, serves on several corporate boards including those at Louisiana Pacific Corp. and DTE Energy Co. and is board chairman of computer company Lason Inc. and United American Healthcare Corp.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to us when he says his administration will place an emphasis on helping the city’s poor escape poverty.

The contradiction, Brooks told us, is part of his “renegade” personality.

From his days as a dashiki-wearing Air Force captain (“They called me Capt. Blood”) who helped establish a military race-relations institute in the early 1970s that is still in existence, Brooks said, he has succeeded despite his penchant to buck the system.

He points out, for example, that while at General Motors he came up with a plan to turn a vacant plant at Clark Street into an industrial park for small, minority-owned manufacturers.

Brooks said he would bring to the mayor’s job the ability to both “shake things up,” and “think out of the box.”

As proof of his willingness to do the former, he recalled his stint in the Labor Department, when one of his first acts was the politically sensitive decision to cut bureaucracy by eliminating 12 regional directorships. As mayor, said Brooks, he would consolidate and merge some departments in order to cut down on bureaucratic “turf wars” that ultimately inhibit development.

As to thinking outside the box, he has plans to deal with everything from snow removal (hire neighborhood people with plows on their trucks, and have them be responsible to a four- or five-block area) to a system of “cashless” food stores for senior citizens run by faith-based organizations.

And then there is his information technology experience. Since the early ’70s, Brooks has been involved in computerizing massive bureaucracies, both for government and in the private sector. It is expertise, he said, that Detroit sorely needs to deal with many of its problems.

It is his intent, he said, to serve just one term. “I want to be able to make decisions without looking over my shoulder and worrying about getting re-elected.”

The one certainty is a Brooks administration would be anything but boring.

“My philosophy has always been that I would rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” he said. “And that’s the kind of philosophy that would be critical to my administration.”

Joe Harris may indeed know the intricacies of Detroit’s labyrinthine bureaucracy in a way the other candidates could only dream of matching (that is, if their dreams are in black and white, and include piles of spreadsheets). But is that enough to qualify him to be mayor?

Sure, everyone and his kid sister (not to mention all the candidates we interviewed) agrees that a top priority for the next mayor must be an overhaul of the way city government works — or doesn’t work, as the case may be. But as the city’s appointed auditor general, he knows what’s broken, and has some fine ideas as to how it all should be fixed. He’d start with a new group of managers.

“The team that’s currently running the city is not a competent team,” he observes. But that alone won’t do it. Harris said it is crucial to bring in expert consultants that will help the city “re-engineer,” department by department, in order to dramatically change the way the city does business. He says he has already identified ways to free up $100 million by increasing efficiency.

Moving through a mental list, department by department, he displays a knowledge that is indeed impressive.

“Where the city of Detroit is right now requires a certain type of person,” asserted Harris. “We have realized we are doing things the same way we have done the last 30, 40, 50 years. If we continue doing that, people will continue to leave the city. We need to get back into city operations and improve the services. Everybody says that’s what they are going to do. Just telling people to work harder, work smarter won’t work. I’m the only one talking about re-engineering.”

“If we don’t make city government user-friendly, we won’t attract business to the city.”

That, and a reduction in corporate and personal income taxes, will bring new business and new residents.

Convinced of his expertise, we raise another issue. It is pointed out that being mayor of Detroit involves much more than overseeing the management of various city departments. It is also a job that, by its very nature, requires consummate political skill if he or she is going to be successful. There are Lansing and Washington to wring funding out of, developers and corporations to cut deals with, various and often conflicting constituencies to serve.

Harris agreed that he lacks experience in these areas, but says that he has the requisite people skills to succeed.

Should we be concerned that, as a nonpolitician, his résumé is noticeable lacking in these areas?

“Relationships are something that you build up,” he explained. “And what I think you will hear from everybody and anybody is that Harris gets along with people. I’ve always extended my hand to work with people”

And with that, it is back to what the accountant with an MBA admits is his forte: Analyzing the nuts and bolts of the city’s bureaucracy. He lays out problems in the Health Department, the Police Department, the Lighting Department, the Law Department.

As he talks, his sense of frustration is almost palpable.

“I’ve been auditor general for four years, submitting these reports, and nothing is done. They just sit there on the shelf.” And that, he says, is why he decided to run for mayor. In his view, no one was more qualified to fix what’s broken.

What surprised him was how difficult it’s been to deliver his message to the city’s voters.

“I know that I’m not a politician, and that I’ve never run for office before … but I thought that if I got out there, once people understood what I’m all about, I could get the backing of the business community and we could change city government. But I really thought I would get more support, without understanding the money issues, how many billboards I would need, how many bus signs I needed, how much television time and radio time I needed. It’s really been an enlightening experience.

“It’s not that my platform has been rejected, it’s just that it hasn’t been well-publicized.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]