Our choice: Cockrel

Always a difficult job, the process of deciding which candidate to endorse for mayor of Detroit this time around is made even more complicated by the electoral fiasco currently facing the city.

As if there weren't enough problems to grapple with — the most pressing being a budget deficit of at least $250 million — the fact that Detroit must endure two primary elections and two runoffs over the next 11 months is a ludicrous situation created by a flawed provision in the City Charter. We need a leader who is focused exclusively on dealing with the problems of housing foreclosures, high unemployment, crime and a host of other maladies afflicting us. Instead, we have an interim mayor who will have to succeed in four elections if he's going to be sitting in the same office come this time next year.

On the other hand, it's possible the city could have three different mayors in 2009.

This folly could not have come at a worse time. The nation is staring into the gaping maw of an economic depression the likes of which few people living have ever endured. Detroit and the state of Michigan were among the first to experience this fiscal freefall, and we remain on the bleeding edge of crisis.

But we can't wish away reality. Our situation is what it is.

We offer this preamble, though, because the unprecedented circumstances of this election figured heavily in our decision to endorse Kenneth Cockrel Jr. in the Feb. 24 primary.

Frankly, we are not convinced we'd be giving Cockrel the nod if this round of elections were being held to determine the person who will lead Detroit through the next four years. Extraordinary times require extraordinary leaders, and, though capable, Cockrel, during his 11 years on the City Council and his five months in the mayor's office, has neither dazzled us with brilliance nor moved us with an abundance of charisma.

Then again, neither have any of the candidates running against him.

What we do have in Cockrel is an earnest, hardworking public servant with deep roots in this city and a well-grounded understanding of how its government does — and doesn't — work. Put in an almost untenable position, he handled things as well as could be expected during the tawdry scandal caused by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Had he led a crusade to have Kilpatrick removed from office, Cockrel would have opened himself up to the criticism that he was merely playing politics in an attempt to clear a path to the mayor's job. Instead, he showed a high degree of dignity in the face of Kilpatrick's classless attempts at a slapdown, and helped guide the council in legitimate attempts to remove Kilpatrick from office.

Moreover, Cockrel has shown what even his critics must admit is good judgment in making key appointments once Kilpatrick was forced to leave office after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges.

In naming former federal prosecutor Saul Green to be his deputy mayor, Cockrel immediately set the needed tone for an incoming administration taking office in an atmosphere tainted with the prospect of corruption indictments being handed down by the U.S. Justice Department. With some members of City Council and other city officials in the crosshairs of a grand jury investigation, it is vital that Cockrel surround himself with people who have sterling reputations. Green — tasked with the responsibility of overseeing a Police Department still operating under the scrutiny of the Justice Department, and a Law Department tainted by its handling of the Kilpatrick scandal — is just such a person.

So is former Auditor General Joe Harris. In appointing him to be the city's chief financial officer, Cockrel signaled that he is looking for an honest accounting of the city's finances — something that was sorely lacking under Kilpatrick.

Such appointees help ease concerns about one piece of baggage that Cockrel lugged into office: the actions of John Clark, who served as Cockrel's chief of staff for eight years while on the City Council. Clark resigned last year after federal agents caught him on videotape accepting cash related to the council's approval of the contract for Houston-based Synagro to dispose of sewage sludge.

Cockrel, who voted against that contract, says he's been told that he's not a target of the investigation, but his long association with Clark can't help but raise at least some concern among voters weary of the scandals involving Kilpatrick.

That said, there's much to like about Cockrel. The fact he worked previously as a daily newspaper journalist — and, for a time, wrote a column for this paper — certainly scores points with us. So does the fact that, as the father of five, he has kids in the Detroit Public Schools. We like, too, that, at the age of 42, he still gets out to take in an occasional AC/DC concert. If Detroit is to have any kind of future, it must project an image of vibrancy that attracts young people here. But these weren't the deciding factors for us.

In weighing our decision to endorse Cockrel, several other candidates merited serious consideration. Freman Hendrix, who served as deputy mayor during the administration of Dennis Archer, former City Council member the Rev. Nick Hood III and Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans all have qualities that make them viable contenders. The same is true for former council member Sharon McPhail, a woman of great intelligence and a long history of public service. Had she not chosen to go to work for Kilpatrick in a role that compelled her to be one of his staunchest defenders, she would certainly be considered a viable contender. As for state Rep. Coleman A. Young Jr., at 26 he is certainly a politician with the prospect of a bright future, but now is not the time to endorse someone with his level of inexperience.

The one "major" candidate who left us largely unimpressed is businessman Dave Bing. A former star for the Detroit Pistons and a successful entrepreneur, Bing, in our interview with him, was frustratingly vague in detailing how he'd lead Detroit's rebound at this crucial juncture. The business community may be solidly behind him, but Bing's success in the private sector is no guarantee he has the political savvy to run a city facing as many problems as Detroit. Despite his contributions to the city as a business owner and developer, he came off as someone still learning the city he proposes to lead.

Yes, Cockrel has been criticized for not moving fast enough following his initial series of appointments and pronouncements. But we found him serious and focused, with a firm grasp of the challenges and some sound ideas for addressing them. Writing before he delivers his State of the City address, we can only hope he'll seize the opportunity to articulate his vision to citizens without pandering to them as voters. We came away from our interview with him feeling that he offers what Detroit most needs now: a steady hand to guide us through the coming months of tumult created by a daunting budget crisis and the specter of federal indictments. Those qualities are enough to convince us he's qualified to be a caretaker of city government for the coming months, which we find preferable to the immediate transfer of power to yet another potentially short-term leader. If he uses that time wisely, it will give him the opportunity to convince us — and, more importantly, Detroit voters — that he's worthy of holding on to the job for a full term.

The mayoral candidates make their case...

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