Hizzoner, the real one

This week, I was prepared to write about neo-religious fascism, the tyranny of the minority and our surprising acquiescence to it as a so-called free society. But that’s going to be with us for at least four more years, so I can hit it later.

I chose a new topic because a letter poured in today from Ron Hewitt that got me thinking on another track. If you don’t know the name, Hewitt was a functionary in Mayor Coleman A. Young’s administration. Because his letter came too late, you’ll have to wait until next week to read it. He didn’t like what I wrote last week in comparing the current mayor’s description of Detroit as “God’s City” to a violent slum of the same name in Rio de Janeiro.

Hewitt’s letter gives me entrée to a subject I’ve wanted to get to for a while now. He essentially traced all of Detroit’s current woes to long-ago Mayor Roman S. Gribbs. There’s much truth in what he had to say, but he wasn’t explicit about his point, and that’s the fact that Gribbs is white. (That’s always the point with Hewitt, who was one of the most notorious and obnoxious racists in Coleman’s coterie.) My question is, what has the current mayor actually done to address the condition of the city? I asked one of his aides that question recently, and he said, “Well, the parks are all mowed.”

The Mayor’s first year in office coincided with mine as a working journalist. In time, I was assigned to cover him for The Detroit News, and had many opportunities to watch him up close, including on an extended “fact-finding mission” to Africa and Europe with, among others, Kwame’s Mommy, then-Michigan House member and current U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. I don’t recall anything useful to Detroit taxpayers coming out of that junket, but we all had a hell of a good time.

And one rare, unforgettable night, I was granted an interview in his private quarters in the Manoogian Mansion. It was to have lasted 20 minutes but ended after more than 2-1/2 hours. What had started as a formal interview quickly changed into what my grandma used to call “a visit.” We talked politics, literature, race, national and international affairs and more. The whole time, dressed in pajamas and robe, he peeled solitaire.

He was a brilliant, hysterically funny, powerfully charismatic man. I liked and admired The Mayor while giving him no end of difficulties covering the scandals and failures that beset him in office. As far as I know, the admiration wasn’t mutual. The last words he ever spoke to me, when he turned from a chat with Isiah Thomas at a benefit and saw me, were, “So, what rock did you crawl out from under?” Then he laughed his trademark laugh.

I’m one of those who firmly believe he was exactly the right guy for the job at exactly the right time. I also believe he stayed two terms too long, and because all of his most trusted friends and advisers were dead, had no one around him to say that the emperor had no clothes after he began to act like one. While many things worsened and the city deteriorated on his watch, there were also many accomplishments, not the least of which was shifting the balance of power, based on Detroit’s racial composition, to where it belongs.

I’ve much more to say on the topic than space allows, and will pick it up later. But I do want to say this to Kwame Kilpatrick, who cites The Mayor as his role model. With apologies to Lloyd Bentsen: “I knew Coleman Young. And mayor, you’re no Coleman Young.”

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