McNamara’s finale and other numbers

Feb 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

Normally, when politicians die, other politicians shed lots of phony tears lamenting their loss. There's been a lot of that this week, with Ed McNamara's long-expected death. Yet the legendary Wayne County executive will indeed be missed — and has been since he left office three years ago, riddled with cancer.

Yes, he was the last of the great political bosses, which made him a tempting target for a so-called progressive. Yes, sometimes his folks played fast and easy with the rules, as when the people voted money for a new youth prison and his county machine spent it on something else.

But he got things done and made things work and usually his heart was in the right place. I didn't know him all that well. Yet once, in 1998, I sat in his office and he told me about growing up a poor Catholic kid in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood, which then as now was not for sissies.

He told me you could walk down the street on Sunday and hear the voice of Fr. Charles Coughlin, gauleiter of the Shrine of the Little Flower, bellowing out hate from just about every radio.

His family wanted none of it. As they saw it, Franklin D. Roosevelt had given Ed's father a job. McNamara never forgot where he came from. He moved out of the city early on, but — unlike other men his age and class — he never was tempted to become a selfish Republican. He was a school-board member in Dearborn Heights, then a city councilman and mayor in Livonia, before becoming county exec in 1987.

Whatever you think about the way he did it, McNamara cleaned up Wayne County's finances and made the buses and the politicians arrive on time. Yes, he accumulated vast hoards of campaign loot, and I'd feel more comfortable praising him now if I knew where it all had gone.

But Ed McNamara built things; most notably the terminal now named after him at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He also, perhaps more than any other political boss in history, worked hard to mentor talent and build and foster careers, and, as far as I could tell, he was color-blind. He made Jennifer Granholm and Mike Duggan, but also Freman Hendrix and Kwame Kilpatrick. Yes, at the end, there was coasting, and a lot of time spent in Florida. But by that point Wayne County ran like clockwork.

Yet he didn't accomplish the one thing that could have made him truly great: forging an alliance with the Motor City's mayors to move toward some form of metropolitan government to bring back Detroit and, in the process, make our region more nationally competitive.

More than likely, nobody could have accomplished that in the years (1987-2003) McNamara was in charge of the county. For his first few years, he was digging Wayne County out of its mess, and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was old, sick and cranky. At the end, McNamara was old, sick and preoccupied, and the hip-hop mayor was just starting to party.

Yet I would have liked to see what Dennis Archer and Big Ed might have done if they'd possessed the imagination to do so, and had shared power for a few more years when each was at the top of his game.

We need men who can see over the horizon now. But we also need men who worry about broken sewer pipes and burned-out streetlights. Ideally, we'd have leaders who could do both.

Too many politicians, former Gov. Jim Blanchard said when he heard the news, care only about getting to Washington as fast as they can, to run for Congress as a stepping-stone to run for governor, etc. — the sort of career path Blanchard himself followed. "Ed McNamara cared about local government and making neighborhoods work," Blanchard said.

We could use more men and women who think that way.


Cartoon reruns: I've taken a lot of heat for my call a couple of weeks ago for newspapers everywhere to run the famous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper last fall.

Some people were curious why I would want to inflame ethnic tensions, as if they weren't already bad enough. Others say they doubted the motives of the editor (Flemming Rose) who commissioned them.

There's something to be said for both arguments. I don't think that freedom of the press necessarily means you should go out of your way to insult someone else's sacred symbols. But I still think — more than ever — that the cartoons should be published in American newspapers, and here's why: The comics are now a big international news story.

Journalists aren't supposed to be like junior high school censors, keeping the truth from people too delicate to stand it. They need to know what all the fuss is about. Incidentally, that's the other really good reason for publishing these cartoons. They are actually far milder than you've been led to believe though there is one showing Muhammad wearing a bomb for a turban, and another with devil's horns.

All the rest are very bland fare. Some don't show Muhammad at all and instead poke fun at the editor. By the way, Muhammad has long been depicted in art, even by some less fundamentalist Muslims.

And with that, I wish to let sleeping dogmas lie.


Listing our sex offenders: Long ago, H. L. Mencken said that politicians are the only group who could rival newspaper editors for cowardice and craven behavior. Michigan's politicians are proving that even as we speak, ramming a bill through the Legislature that would let you get an "e-mail alert" when someone on the "Sex Offender Registry" moves into your zip code.

Presumably, that's so you can go stone their house or burn it down. Naturally, Gov. Granholm has said she'll sign it. By the way, if little Dan Mulhern, age 16 and one month, had consensual sex with little Jenny Granholm, age 15 years and 11 months, he too could well be an authentic certified Michigan sex offender.

There are cases just like that on the registry. I knew personally of a case a few years ago of a 17-year-old honors student who was taken to court because he was having sex with his underage girlfriend, who wanted to have sex with him as much as he did with her. (I talked to the girl's mother.) Believing his life was ruined since he was now a certified sex offender, he deliberately drove in front of a semi.

The registry itself is a mishmash and a mess. If the state wants to seriously address safety concerns connected with serial rapists and child predators, there are other ways to do it, some of which might actually be effective.

What we're doing now is just political pandering that invites hysteria and vigilante action, and, as any psychologist knows, makes these people even more likely to screw up again.

By the way, the Red Chinese (back when they were really red) had the equivalent of a Political Offender Registry.

Why don't we do that instead? We could have a national Patriot Act Offender Registry for those convicted of insufficient zeal for our glorious war. You know, I kind of like the thought of being my own e-mail alert.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]