Making a race of it

Oct 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

On a crisp, clear Saturday morning, with a little more than two weeks remaining before Detroiters again go to the polls to choose a mayor in this oddest of election years, volunteers at the east side campaign headquarters of Tom Barrow are eagerly waiting for their candidate.

The campaign has run out of coffee cups, and Barrow has gone to fetch some. 

When he finally arrives with the Styrofoam containers needed to keep the lifeblood of any campaign flowing, there's a spirited debate about the amount of coffee to be put in the machine. As his brother shows dismay at how much the candidate wanted to heap in, Barrow defends his judgment while noting that, without a scoop, it's hard to gauge the right amount.

The atmosphere in this Spartan storefront near the corner of Gratiot and Chene is laid-back and jovial, belying the bare-knuckled campaign Barrow is waging against a newly seated incumbent who keeps ducking any direct confrontation with the challenger.

Dave Bing's camp says the new mayor is too busy trying to solve the city's financial crisis to engage in debate. A more cynical view is that Bing, who assumed office in May following a special election to determine who would finish out the term of convicted felon Kwame Kilpatrick, has everything to lose and nothing to gain by acting as if there's really a campaign under way.

An argument could be made that voters — who have already been to the polls three times this year, putting Bing on top every time — have already made their will known.

Bing was one of six high-profile candidates and a host of lesser-knowns competing in a special election. After defeating the likes of former Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix and Sheriff Warren Evans in the February primary, Bing found himself in a runoff with the second-place finisher, former City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr., who'd been elevated to the post of interim mayor when Kilpatrick was forced to resign last year as he trudged off to jail.

In early May, Bing — a former NBA all-star who became a wealthy entrepreneur, founding a group of auto-supply companies — then won the mayor's job by campaigning as a non-politician with both business savvy and the integrity needed to restore honor to an office tarnished by Kilpatrick's tawdry behavior.

Once taking office, Bing pulled a page from Abraham Lincoln's political playbook and brought some of the most formidable of his adversaries into the fold, appointing Evans to the position of Detroit's police chief and providing Hendrix a high-profile role on what was billed as the new mayor's crisis turnaround team. 

Because the May election only decided who would fill out the remainder of Kilpatrick's term — due to end in January 2010 — another round of mayoral elections quickly followed.

That second round, though, featured none of the big names Bing had to face previously. In the August primary, facing five challengers, Bing pulled in nearly 75 percent of the vote. 

Barrow squeaked into second place with just 11 percent.

The conventional wisdom following that election was that, even though it was just a primary, Bing's overwhelming victory indicated that the voters had clearly made up their minds as to who they wanted to lead Detroit for the next four years. Even if all the votes cast for others in the primary were so decidedly anti-Bing they'd end up swinging to Barrow, the incumbent would still commanded a seemingly insurmountable cushion. 

With an unusually competitive City Council race also under way, as well as an important election to choose the group of people tasked with re-writing the city's charter, coverage of the mayoral race all but disappeared from the pages of the city's two daily newspapers and the other mainstream media.

The media aren't the only ones who've judged this race to be already over.

"I haven't even bothered to do any polling on the mayor's race," Mark Grebner, co-owner of the firm Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing, told us last week. "It's almost unimaginable this could turn into a race. In my mind, the only question is whether this will be a complete blowout or just a heavily one-sided win."

Back at his campaign headquarters, Barrow, who shows up wearing blue jeans, a long-sleeve cotton shirt with a button-down collar and a white baseball cap that's seen decidedly better days, dismisses the contention that he has no chance of winning.

In fact, he says, an internal poll that he devised and had conducted by members of a nonprofit organization he founded shows that he's holding a commanding lead. There are also a large number of likely voters who remain undecided, and that research shows that undecided voters, when it comes time to cast a ballot, tend to choose challengers over incumbents.

(Told about the results of Barrow's poll, Grebner guffaws. Later, looking at the numbers, he says what Barrow claims to be the results aren't mathematically possible. On Tuesday, although continuing to question the veracity of Barrow's poll, Grebner sent us an e-mail saying, "I've now done a small sample poll of my own; the race may be closer than I would have guessed, but Tom Barrow is not winning 56 percent-to-19 percent, or whatever they're claiming." On a blog post, Grebner wrote: "I did a tiny sample poll just to reassure myself. I robo-dialed 1,000 likely voters and asked a simple Bing-Barrow horserace question. Bing got 49 votes, to Barrow's 35. Bing's lead is only 58 percent-to-42 percent, but there's a huge 'margin of error' — if we use a 95 percent confidence interval, Bing could be anywhere from six points behind to 38 percent ahead. But at least it's completely inconsistent with the supposed Barrow poll showing Barrow with a 37 percent lead.")

Barrow, however, remains undaunted. And those around his campaign headquarters seem to legitimately share the belief that momentum in this race is swinging in the direction of their candidate.

Among those is Dan Santoscoy, who's known Barrow and his wife Patrice for more than 15 years. An Internet technology professional with more than 25 years experience, Santoscoy is in charge of coordinating the campaign's volunteers. For those working the phone banks, as about a half-dozen were doing last Saturday, he keeps a record of the sheets they all fill out indicating which candidate, if any, the people on the other end of the line say they are supporting. 

(Those who are undecided are given a pro-Barrow pitch; those who say they support the candidate are asked if they will allow a Barrow sign to be placed in their front yard.)

Santoscoy says the responses he's seeing on the phone logs reflect the numbers in the poll the campaign conducted.

"The night of the primary, it looked like we had a monumental task to overcome," says Santoscoy. But the campaign has been working hard, making calls, knocking on doors, passing out literature.

Union officials who have thrown their support behind Barrow likewise tell Metro Times that the candidate is receiving surprisingly strong support compared to the low number of votes he received in the primary.

Barrow's team has proved it can come through when the pressure is on. In recent weeks, under the gun to get literature out to prospective voters who've applied for absentee ballots, the campaign was able to stuff and mail 40,000 envelopes in three days, reports Santoscoy.

According to Barrow, 215 volunteers have signed on and been processed (meaning that they've indicated what they are willing to do and have been assigned a role), while another 134 have contacted the campaign but have yet to be processed. They are all logged into a database.

"Everything's empirical," says Barrow, who talks of his computer expertise. As would be expected of a CPA who built a career on conducting audits, he says, "I like data. And I like making my decisions based on facts."

There is, however, one fact that hangs like a storm cloud over Barrow's campaign: a felony conviction.

'The incident'

As with Santoscoy, many of the people playing key roles in the Barrow campaign have been friends with the candidate for years. Guys like Curtis Black, who says he's known the candidate since the 1970s, when both belonged to a Corvette car club.

At 60, Black is a business consultant who has long called Detroit home. He talks with concern about the direction he sees the city headed in, and believes Barrow is the guy who can changes that trajectory.

Asked if he can point to anything Barrow has done that speaks to his character, Black goes silent for a moment as he searches for the right words, then begins to talk about what he refers to as the "incident" involving Barrow.

By the "incident," he means the tax evasion and fraud charges that landed Barrow in federal prison for 18 months in the 1990s. Before his troubles with the IRS began, the accounting firm Barrow founded had grown into the largest minority-owned businesses of its type in the nation. 

They were heady days. A licensed pilot, he owned a plane. And there was the 38-foot yacht he christened "Calculator."

Along with running his accounting firm, and a computer business he'd also founded, Barrow also became heavily involved with managing the now-defunct New Center Hospital. While heading the hospital's board of directors, both his computer company and accounting firm were doing business with the hospital. A series of Free Press stories in 1989 raised questions about what appeared to be a conflict of interest.

According to court records, though, the seeds of his downfall were planted in 1985, when he launched the first of two campaigns in an attempt to unseat legendary Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. The first thing that happened was the immediate loss of his accounting firm's largest client: The city of Detroit.

As Tax Court Judge Mark Holmes wrote in his ruling, Barrow "believed — and we specifically find his claim of naiveté credible — that this would simply mean putting his name on the ballot and campaigning for awhile. Instead, it began a long downward slide in his personal and financial fortunes."

In the same ruling, Holmes wrote about Barrow calling his 1989 mayoral run — when he pulled in 44 percent of the vote — "life-altering." 

"Barrow," noted the judge, "experienced things he only thought happened in fiction, credibly testifying that someone broke into his home and stole only his briefcase. And he found someone pulling documents from his trash. And that police began to sit outside his home to observe who was coming and going."

"He fought for 15 years to clear his name," says Black. "He never dropped his head, and he never gave up. He continued to persevere."

Barrow's perseverance paid off — to a degree, at least — on Thanksgiving Day last year. That's when Judge Holmes, four years after conducting a two-week civil proceeding held a decade after the criminal trial in which Barrow was convicted, issued a ruling that, as one newspaper account noted, "supported many of Barrow's contentions that he was convicted because of lies and mistakes by the IRS."

(The ruling also took note of the fact that Barrow lied to the Free Press when it launched an investigation into his business dealings and what appeared to be conflicts of interest.)

With that ruling in hand, Barrow went to court again, this time in an attempt to get his conviction expunged. Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood turned down the request. Barrow has vowed to appeal the ruling.

Back at headquarters

As Saturday wears on, activity at the campaign headquarters picks up. As many as 10 volunteers work the phones, calling people who have requested absentee ballots. 

Barrow's wife, Patrice, and their two children, daughter Taylor, 15, and 10-year-old Tom Jr. come in for a while.

The kids are as cute as can be, obviously bright and impeccably well-mannered. They chat with campaign workers while Patrice pulls up a chair and starts phoning potential voters.

Her 60-year-old husband gushes praise.

"What a story she has to tell," he says. "She got pregnant when she was just 17, and got married [to her previous husband] when she was 18. In spite of that, she was able to go on to become a doctor, a surgeon."

A working mom, she maintains an OB/GYN practice in the city.

"We're both fighters," he says. "That's a significant story."

Especially at a time when Detroit is taking it on the chin. Long suffering from massive population loss and the urban decay that inevitably follows, the collapse of the auto industry and the nation's economic meltdown have combined to make Detroit the poster child for postindustrial ruin. Even if the apocalyptic images being fed to the outside world are a distortion, there is no denying the fact Detroit is struggling mightily, a place where unemployment is approaching a Depression-like 30 percent and its schools have been placed in the hands of an emergency financial manager.

Now, more than ever, says Barrow, the city needs the inspiration of a leader who is a proven fighter. His long battle with the IRS is proof of his mettle, he says.

Spending time behind bars, he adds, also had a profound effect:

"I learned that I was not unique. I learned that there are so many other uneducated and undereducated people who have been wrongfully had by the system but cannot get their story heard or justice, and are destined to carry a false scarlet letter for the rest of their life while society looks down its nose at them … wrongfully."

Working it

While Bing appears content to sit on his perceived lead and act as if this election's already been decided, Barrow is spending as many as 16 hours a day working on his campaign.

At times, it is retail politics at its most basic. When he picks up a phone on Saturday to cajole a potential supporter, it's one of those times.

"Would you like me to come to your house," he asks. "I'm telling you, I'll do that. Get your friends together and I'll be there. Just have some black coffee, and maybe some chocolate chip cookies."

The same offer (sans the request for coffee and cookies) is made to anyone visiting the campaign's website.

Later on, when pressed again to talk about his chances, Barrow denies he's deluding himself — or others — when he claims that he's got a good shot at winning this race, despite what the experts and the media have to say.

Told that, from the outside looking in, it appears that he has an incredibly steep mountain to climb, Barrow says he doesn't see things that way.

"In a certain sense, a candidate is in a bubble. But, in another way, it's the folks who aren't involved in a campaign that are surrounded by a bubble. It's easy to dismiss candidates as being eternal optimists. But candidates are also the first ones to feel the way things are going.

"I've been there when I wasn't so optimistic. The first time I ran against Coleman, people really weren't responding to me. They were aloof. Cold.

"Now, there's a huge difference. I'm out there, riding the buses, going into the bars and barbershops, talking to people. And I'm telling you, the sense of momentum is palpable. The guy I'm running against is an outsider, and I'm a fourth-generation Detroiter, and I think that's what people want."

The fact that Bing — although owning businesses in Detroit — never lived in the city until deciding to run for mayor is a point Barrow hammers relentlessly. 

Adding yet another layer of weirdness to the oddness of this election is the fact that one of Bing's top appointees, Chief Administrative Officer Charlie Beckham, served two years in prison during the 1980s after pleading guilty to taking a $16,000 bribe from a sludge-hauling company while running the Department of Water & Sewerage in the Coleman Young administration.

Earlier this month, members of the grassroots Call 'Em Out Coalition sought to have Beckham removed from office under a 1931 state law that "forever disqualifies" anyone guilty of taking a bribe from holding any executive, legislative or judicial office." Attorney General Mike Cox refused to pursue the complaint. 

Barrow called Cox's decision "absurd."

Given the possibility that the coalition could still try to seek his removal, Beckham told The Detroit News that anyone who tries to take him to court can "bring it on," adding that they "need to bring their A-game. We're ready for it."

Barrow, in the same article, is quoted as being critical of Cox, who gave no reason for his decision not to pursue the case, saying Detroiters are "fed up with this politics and self-serving law enforcement here."

In some ways, it reflects a certain tone-deaf quality on the part of Barrow. He seems so convinced of the injustice of his run-in with the IRS, and of his conviction, it is almost as if it is a given that voters will give it no credence.

And so he sees no irony at all in one convicted felon, while campaigning to become the city's mayor, calling for another convicted ex-felon to be removed from office.

But his criminal record is an issue that seems to often enter a room one step ahead of him.

On the air

After a day of coming and going from his campaign headquarters, by late afternoon Barrow has changed from dungarees to a well-fitted suit as he shifts gears from the retail politics of a phone bank to the wholesale politics of mass media.

Or, in this case, maybe quasi-mass media is a more apt term.

He's scheduled for a 4 p.m. appearance on the Ron March Show, broadcast simultaneously on the low-power TV 33 and WHPR-FM radio station operating out of Highland Park. If you haven't heard of the program, or TV 33 for that matter, you can be forgiven. It's the type of station where on-air personalities, rather than being paid, have to buy their airtime. 

In what seems to be a Bill Clinton-like trait, Barrow is again running late. March, a burly middle-aged black man who himself once ran for mayor of Detroit as a member of the Green Party, is filling time, waiting for his guest to arrive. After plugging the show's sponsors — a mortgage company and the maker of an herbal immune-system fortifier — March launches into a diatribe of the electoral process.

"Democracy is your biggest enemy," he tells his audience. "I'm not even registered. I gave up on it."

It seems an odd way to lead into an interview with someone there asking for people's votes.

Barrow arrives about 15 minutes into the program. The two men sit before a single camera. A faux-brick wall of paper held in place by tape is their backdrop.

After telling viewers (and listeners) that he intends to see where the candidate's "head is" and attempt to determine if he's a leader who will "quit giving the city away to the suburbs," March first notes that Coleman A. Young was the "last good mayor" Detroit's seen.

And then, the first question out of his mouth has to do with Barrow's problems with the IRS. March wants to know what happened.

"I trusted the government," replies Barrow. "That was mistake No. 1."

He then sets off on a half-hour explanation of the ordeal, going into mind-boggling detail that includes references to the alternative minimum tax and unused tax credits and how the IRS took his records and then wouldn't allow him access to them in order to mount a defense. As he goes deeper into the story, he clearly grows more agitated, his voice rising, pounding his fist for emphasis as he describes confronting a "crooked little agent" on the stand as he dismissed his lawyer mid-trial.

"What these people had done to me was so false," says Barrow, "so wrong …"

And he leaves it hanging, unable to put into words the sense of persecution.

Finally, he allows, "It's a complicated case."

"Why did they zero in on you?" asks March.

"Politics," is the one-word reply.

From there the talk moves to the ground on which Barrow has built his campaign, with Barrow presenting himself as a populist who will never stop fighting to protect Detroit and its people from the right-wingers — as personified by L. Brooks Patterson, the Republican chief executive of suburban Oakland County — with an avaricious eye on Detroit's "jewels." 

Bing, in his view, is at best a man "operating way over his head." At worst, he's another Republican businessman, an outsider and a carpetbagger who wants to bust unions and privatize services and relinquish, under the guise of regionalization, whatever the city has that's still of value.

"I don't want to isolate Detroit," Barrow says, attempting to blunt the certain criticism that he would be a divisive figure at a time when cooperation between city and suburbs is needed more than ever if both are going to survive in the rapidly changing world economy. Saying he wants to work with the suburbs, he adds a caveat: "I want to deal with them from a position of respect, and right now they don't respect us."

"Our spirit is broken," he declares. 

Further on in the interview, he describes Patterson as a "dominating" politician "who does a good job looking out for his county."

"But he's not going to dominate me," promises Barrow.

"I've been tested."


This much is certain: Detroit has been knocked back on its heels. With a reported deficit of at least $300 million, relations between Bing and most of the city's municipal labor unions have deteriorated rapidly.

Last month, Michigan Council 25 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 3,300 city workers, withdrew its backing of Bing and threw its support behind Barrow.

"There's always some friction between AFSME and the mayor, I don't care who the mayor is," Council 25 President Al Garrett says. "But right now, our relations with this mayor are the worst in my 37 years, and I've been a player in negotiations all those years."

Garrett's isn't the only union to switch allegiance. Metro AFL-CIO, the Coalition of Organized Labor and the Amalgamated Transit Union all supported Bing in the primary election, but have now thrown their support behind Barrow for the general election.

Even union leaders, however, don't think they alone are powerful enough to swing an election.

With their backs against the wall and their clout diminishing as the city's workforce shrinks, the unions don't want this election to be seen as a litmus test for their ability to determine who wins or loses an election.

For one thing, they say, it's a power they never had in the first place.

"I don't think the unions, alone, ever had the power to elect someone," says Garrett. Success, he explains, has come when the attitudes of union members and the community at large have been "in sync."

What unions can do is help fill campaign coffers and put foot soldiers on the streets, knocking on doors and passing out fliers. But when they are successful, Garrett explains, "it is more a reflection of shared concerns than total union power."

"Bing has got big business behind him, and Barrow has a pretty steep hill to climb," says John Riehl, president of AFSCME Local 207. 

It's not like Barrow was a candidate the unions chose to run as their standard bearer. Using a baseball metaphor, Riehl says the situation is more like a manager looking at his bench, seeing one player left, and so you have no other choice but to "slap him on the back, hand him a bat and say, 'You're up.'"

The problem, says Garrett, is not that the unions are being called upon to make more concessions. It's that Bing, in calling for 10 percent cuts across the board and other givebacks, "is taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach."

"This is a nontraditional negotiation because there is nothing to give up," Bing told the Detroit Free Press earlier this month. (Bing has given at least two exclusive interviews to the town's leading daily over the past several weeks; last week his campaign, after weeks of requests from this paper for a sit-down interview, said the mayor didn't have time to meet with us before the deadline for this article.)

In an opinion piece for the Freep that ran under the headline "The delusions that Detroiters can no longer afford to indulge," Bing told his constituents:

"It is both amazing and unfortunate that many fail or refuse to understand a reality that is staring us all in the face. We are in a modern-day recession. The lines at resource and assistance initiatives mirror those of soup lines of days we thought were long gone. Businesses that we thought would be around forever have shuttered their doors and windows, and our bad numbers — unemployment, illiteracy — continue to rise as our good numbers — population, graduation, and revenue — continue to plummet. … We must make the tough but necessary changes. We can't operate an entire bus line for a couple of riders; we can't employ every resident, and we can no longer afford the perks once demanded by the unions. Times have changed. And now, we must do the same."

Unfortunately for Bing, a series of missteps have at least changed the dynamics of this race. The proposal to stop all bus service on Saturday nights and Sundays provoked a torrent of protest from the low-wage workers and disabled who rely on public transit. 

A turnaround plan that relies heavily on privatization and worker cuts gives fodder to those who claim that Bing the businessman is more in tune with the region's corporate powers than he is with the concerns of average citizens.

And it surely doesn't help to be seen being chauffeured around in a brand new $60,000 Yukon Denali being paid for by taxpayers while at the same time chiding the unions for wanting to retain perks the city can no longer afford. 

And the announcement this week that mounting losses at his companies operated under the banner of the Bing Group might force him to sell them takes at least some of the luster off his reputation as a businessman.

Barrow is no doubt making his share of eyebrow-raising claims, and a felony conviction for fraud makes him easy to dismiss as a serious candidate.

In one breath he says it's impossible to know what the city's deficit truly is, given that the city is so far behind on its annual audits. By the same token, he claims that he can add 300 new police officers and 250 one-man scout cars.

But there remain legitimate questions about Bing's ability to lead.

Questions he should be expected to answer if he wants to retain the office he now holds.

However big his margin of victory was in the August primary, voters did select someone to challenge him. 

While we tagged along with Barrow on the campaign trail over the weekend — as he appeared at two well-attended forums at churches on Sunday, making his pitch to voters and answering their questions — there were a few points he repeatedly made.

Among them was the contention that, despite being in office for nearly five months, the Bing has yet to get a firm grasp on the city's financial situation.

We sent the mayor's office an e-mail reiterating a few of Barrow's claims:

Last month, Mr. Bing told bus drivers he was cutting weekend bus service. A week later, he mysteriously found $400,000 in stimulus money to keep the busses running. The following week, he claimed the city would run out of cash by Oct. 1 if the unions didn't buckle under and take the draconian 10 percent wage cuts. A week later, he says we now have enough cash to take the city to April 2010 and are only $60 million short.

After telling city workers for weeks that 1,300 employees would have to go, he announced that due to efficiencies and found resources, he only needs to cut fewer than 400 jobs. This mayor simply has no credibility with the people of Detroit or city unions. He clearly doesn't have a clue, much less a comprehensive plan. He is flopping around, making decisions in a yo-yo fashion.

We asked for a response to the accusations. This is the message we received:

Mayor Bing inherited a financial crisis. Each source of city revenue is down and projections that occurred prior to his entering office have proven far too optimistic. 

Mayor Bing is moving to attack the financial crisis with a steady, deliberate and data-driven approach. He is not interested in band-aid solutions or political pandering. Rather, he is working diligently to identify the optimum means of addressing the financial shortfall with minimal negative impact. 

The reality is the Bing administration is looking to maximize efficiencies without compromising effectiveness. He works for the 900,000+ residents of Detroit, not the same self-interested individuals and organizations that for decades have pursued their own enrichment while Detroit fell deeper into crisis. 

Leadership requires making the tough but necessary decisions. Mayor Bing is leading by example, taking no salary, implementing a 10 percent pay cut for his appointees through 26 furlough days and trimming the waste in city government.

You'll notice there was no direct dispute of any of Barrow's accusations.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or [email protected]