Here's what was most unusual about last week's election for mayor of Detroit. Not the mildly surprising result. Not the tiny turnout. Not the fact that someone with no political experience was elected to the city's top job for the first time since 1890.
No, the amazing thing was that this was an old-fashioned, normal, decent election. No race-baiting. No talk about who was black enough. No bashing the suburbs. Very little bad behavior at all, from the candidates, anyway. What this came down to was a contest between two decent professional men who wanted to tackle the risky task of trying to make things better in our stricken and troubled city.
The voters, those few who did vote, chose Dave Bing, the 65-year-old basketball star turned successful businessman. Why they did so was, I think, clear. They had seen all they wanted of dysfunction in City Hall, from the criminal regime of Kwame Kilpatrick to the near-paralysis caused by the antics of Monica Conyers. Nobody blamed Ken Cockrel Jr. for this. My guess is, if the voters had been asked whether he was a good, decent and honorable man, the results would have been much the same as the vote on whether to revise the city charter — 78 percent yes.
But what doomed him was the failure to get the regional plan to renovate Cobo Center done, with council first approving and then disapproving it, after some spiteful sabotage by the venomous and now widely despised Monica. Nobody blamed Cockrel for her buffoonery, but it added to the perception that he couldn't corral the gang of idiots on the council and make them function.
Finally, Freman Hendrix's 11th-hour endorsement really did the trick. Hendrix is a classic in politics — a supremely competent player who somehow lacks the electoral appeal to win the top prize. But he was a close third in the primary, and commanded enough respect among a certain group of voters to make the difference.
As a result, at the last minute, virtually all the undecided swung to Bing, who won a close, but clear, overall victory.
None of that really matters, however. What matters is what happens now.
We all need to hope that Dave Bing turns out to be the greatest mayor in the history of this city. The stakes are high, and the situation is that desperate. I admire the little bit I know about Bing. As I have said, if I had been eligible, I would have voted for Ken Cockrel Jr., primarily because he has experience in government.
Nothing against Bing, but we've been burned more than once before by electing officials with no political background. Seven years ago, we elected a brilliant and charismatic governor with no executive or legislative experience, and Jennifer Granholm has been an utter failure at leading decisively and getting it done.
There have been exceptions, however; Dwight D. Eisenhower was a competent president despite a lack of political experience. Dennis Archer was a good mayor who had never run for any partisan office before — though he had run political campaigns.
Bing built up a successful business in Detroit after his basketball playing days ended in 1978. That took a lot of work and wasn't a guaranteed success. He played in an era when salaries were far smaller than today — in 1970, for example, he made $90,000.
He must have had some diplomatic and organizational smarts, which are essential. Apart from the ability to persuade and to make the hard calls, one of the main secrets of governing is to get people in key jobs who know more about their areas of expertise than you do.
Bing's first moves after the election seemed sensible, as the mayor-elect appointed a transition "turnaround team" led by Freman Hendrix, Denise Ilitch and a Ford retiree named Joe Walsh. This is not your normal "transition team," but a group designed to study the books and "look at policies, procedures, and the best way of running city government."
Radical reforms are needed, and the city has little time and less margin for error. The official unemployment rate is 23 percent; the real rate much higher. The problems don't stop, from the decaying infrastructure to the fact that this is a city that once had 2 million people and now has much less than half that.
Most urgent of all is solving the $300 million budget deficit. After that, Bing and the rest of the city have to face the fact that the economy is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better.
General Motors is on the brink of bankruptcy. More jobs in the city will be lost whether it goes through that difficult process or not. L. Brooks Patterson and his mini-me, Mike Bishop, the Republican majority leader in the state Senate, are talking openly about stealing the North American International Auto Show away to the Rock Financial Center, probably as early as next January.
So with Detroit way behind deep in the fourth quarter, we have to put our faith in the Hall of Famer who just came off the bench. Somehow, for some crazy reason, I am optimistic.
Because I still believe in this town. Kwame Kenyatta, the city councilman, won, hands down, the statesmanship award of the week. He'd been talking about running for the full four-year term as mayor. The day after the special election, he pulled out. "Our people are battle-fatigued right now. It's time for Detroit to pull together," he said.
A number of other potential candidates, including even Sharon McPhail, said they wouldn't challenge Bing either. By the time you read this, Cockrel will have had to decide whether to try again. I hope he doesn't, frankly. He can do more good where he is, as a partner in getting the necessary reforms enacted. In any event, Cockrel started the healing process, and restored dignity and decency and credibility to the office of mayor.
Over at Wayne State University, where Cockrel got his degree and where I teach journalism, there is a very simple word for the way he is regarded by those who know him: Proud.
After he won last week, Bing, who grew up in Washington, D.C., told The Washington Post, "We've got a city where a lot of people don't even hope or dream anymore." He added, "I still dream. I dream that this city can be what it was before I even got here." Inspiring people to dream is important.
But we should all stop dreaming that Detroit will someday be "what it was." It won't ever be — and that's not all bad. Detroit, in what we think of as its Golden Age, the city romanticized by old white people in Livonia, was far from perfect. It was racist and bigoted and polluted. What we need is a new model that works, and that in some sense includes everyone in the area.
Impossible? Ridiculously idealistic? Have you forgotten who is president of the United States? Last Saturday night, amid the stunning beauty of the Fox Theatre, Leonard Cohen, the greatest poet of our age, sang across the generations to a sold-out audience.
"There's a crack, there's a crack in everything," that timeless voice rasped. "That's how the light gets in."
Most Detroiters don't know their city has a motto that's more than two centuries old. Speramus meliora. Resurget cineribus. Or in our tongue: We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes.
It will, too, if we make it so.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]