On the election

Nov 16, 2005 at 12:00 am

“The Black people of this city, which definitely includes Mayor Kilpatrick are not going to accept a declaration of what we deserve from an active dues-paying member of the oppressor class.” —Roland Hewitt, Detroit


“I’ve got news for Mayor Kilpatrick: Your city is a fucking decrepit shithole, Mr. Mayor. African-American residents are fleeing as fast as they can, Mr. Mayor. You have failed your residents, the region and the state, and now have another four years to bumble, lie and steal. ... This is one ‘white devil’ who is getting the fuck out of here. I suggest every young person, whatever your race, do the same ...” —Walled Lake resident too cowardly to sign his name


For those who were nurturing any illusions, welcome to the reality of Detroit. Incidentally, I was right there with you, and was dead wrong about the election. I thought that Detroiters would see through all the stirring speeches and thinly disguised race-baiting.

I thought they would rationally vote to step away from the financial incompetence, the immaturity and the behavior that got the incumbent named one of Time magazine’s three worst mayors in the country.

Yet they voted for more of it. It’s true that Freman Hendrix wasn’t especially inspiring. He didn’t promise the voters that they would all get a Jet Ski. No, Hendrix offered them — pretty much — toil, tears and sweat. He told them he would work hard to improve their lot and not do anything to embarrass their dignity, or his own.

That wasn’t enough. What happened, in the end, was that those who couldn’t care less about becoming part of economically viable America joined with those who have given up hope.

Add to that some romantic fools who thought somehow they were building a bond with Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement by voting for Kwame Kilpatrick, and — whoops, there it is.

Clearly, this was largely, too, a backlash against the media. Note the letter at the beginning of this column; Hewitt was upset that I had objected to being called a member of a lynch mob in the now-infamous racist ad.

Black racism, that is. The ad showed me next to Mildred Gaddis, who told me once that the key difference between Detroit and the other cities in which she has lived is the number of people here who have a vested interest in seeing themselves as victims, and live life as a pity party.

Perhaps had the “lynch mob” ad not appeared right in the middle of Rosa Parks’s funeral that lasted forever, it wouldn’t have worked. But it did.

What was especially curious was that — apart from the mayor’s race — the voters acted far more responsibly than many had predicted. True, they did narrowly select Martha and the Vandellas for City Council, rather than the impressive Jai-Lee Dearing. However, they ousted the worst elections clerk I have ever seen. They decisively dumped Lonnie “I’m a Big Man” Bates, and were smart enough not to force an expensive special election by wasting sympathy votes on retiring Maryann Mahaffey.

Yet they gave Kwame Kilpatrick “another chance.” What’s not clear is what they expect him to do with it. Stop going to nightclubs at city expense in his zoot suit and diamond earrings? Frankly, I suspect he’ll clean up that part of his act, for a while, anyway.

On the other hand, the Detroit Free Press, which did the best work exposing the mayoral style, now sees that this apparently wasn’t a problem for a majority of the electorate. That, or it drove them to rally around their mayor in sullen protest against reality.

Best guess here is that the newspapers and the TV stations will now mostly stop paying attention, since the customers mostly live elsewhere, and long ago stopped caring much about the “fucking decrepit shithole.”

By the way, I chose that letter not for its vulgar language, but because it candidly expresses what many people feel. The writer was in fact reasonably intelligent, though a coward. He told the editors he wanted us to print it without his name because “I don’t really feel the desire to be firebombed out of my house.”

Yes, lots of gangs of black avengers roaming the streets of Walled Lake. What he says about Detroit, however, is worth quoting in more detail.

“Kilpatrick’s re-election can only spell disaster. ... This election, with its undertone of racist exclusion of any African-American that Kilpatrick and his misguided supporters consider not black enough is utterly disgusting, yet so utterly typical of the ignorant racial politics of Southeast Michigan.

“Despite the fact that I am politically independent, I am viewed as a heretic for having the audacity to suggest that the city and its residents get their act together and start demanding education and opportunity to lift the city out of its long decline.”

Sour grapes from a whitey who fled the city long ago? Well, on my radio show the day after the election, I talked with a young black man from Farmington Hills who had been planning to move to Detroit if Hendrix had won. Now, he says no way; it’ll be Ann Arbor or Chicago.

Freman Hendrix’s main problem was that he was a dinosaur. He helped Dennis Archer win in 1993. Were Detroit’s population the same now as then, he would have won. But it isn’t. The people who made Dennis Archer mayor have left. Not only is the white population less than half what it was, Hendrix’s peers have fled. They’re in Southfield and West Bloomfield now.

Incidentally, what few realized was that Freman Hendrix, unlike Dennis Archer, was not the candidate of big business. Corporate America knows how to make deals with someone like Our Mayor. Hendrix was, in fact, the successful little guy who made something of himself.

He grew up in a working-class, pro-union family; enlisted in the Navy; put himself through school; got a job and worked his way up. He didn’t hobnob with the black power elite when he was 8 years old. He pretty much did it on his own.

By the way, this may have been Detroit’s last normal election. Had he won, a year from now Freman Hendrix would have been roundly hated. He would have had to make very tough decisions to try to keep the city out of financial takeover.

Now, that takeover is certain to happen. Joe Harris, who is leaving office as auditor general, tells me that in his view, an eventual state takeover of Detroit is virtually inevitable. The city cannot pay its bills.

They may stave off takeover in the short run by doing things like not making contributions to the pension fund, Harris says. But the city has reached its borrowing limit. It may run out of cash next month.

Or it may not. But eventually the debt avalanche will hit. Someday, probably after next year’s statewide elections, an emergency financial manager will come in. When that happens, Kilpatrick will still be mayor. He’ll be able to line the pencils up on his desk, and have lunch with his new friend, Sharon McPhail.

That is, if Sharon is buying. He won’t have the power to spend any money, period. Ask city officials in Hamtramck what being taken over is like. To be fair, Joe Harris doubts that Freman Hendrix could have ultimately avoided receivership either. He also thinks receivership might be the best thing, as painful as the process will be.

The tragedy is that the only hope for all of us is regional cooperation. Kwame Kilpatrick won his election last week on terms designed to make that harder to accomplish than ever. But he got what he wanted.

We’ll all see if Detroit does as well.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or