Politics & Prejudices: Standing up for cities

Dan Kildee, the congressman from Flint, cares, really cares about cities, especially older industrial ones like his hometown.

"Detroit gets all the attention," but smaller cities are hurting too, he told me last month in his office in Flint, the city where he's lived since he was born in 1958. For the past five years, he's represented three of those towns — Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City.

Not only does he think cities are being dealt a raw deal by the politicians in Washington and state capitals like Lansing, those running our cities often think falsely that the municipalities themselves deserve the lion's share of the blame.

Cities today all over the industrial heartland are struggling with too much debt, too few jobs, declining populations, and pension fund problems. Not to mention aging infrastructure.

"The interesting thing is that every city that finds itself in this predicament thinks it's unique," Kildee says, “when in fact their problems are rooted in causes that are largely beyond their control.”

Kildee, a pleasantly burly man who looks like a governor or old-time big-city mayor, thinks we need a national urban policy, "one that is informed about the unique needs of cities that are being left behind," he told me earnestly.

Doing something for America's older industrial cities is, Kildee knows, not a popular cause these days. In fact, few politicians have been excited about helping our cities since the days of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, half a century ago.

Yes, the legislature did grudgingly help ease Detroit's bankruptcy, but only because they realized the consequences for the entire state if pensions had been allowed to completely collapse and there had been a fire sale at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Cities are certainly not popular in Congress, where the now-solid Republican majority regards them mostly as ghastly warrens of decay, full of Democrats, minorities, and crime. But not many Democrats are speaking up loudly for cities either. The costs are seen as too great; the rewards too small, and the challenges just too damn hard.

Kildee, who has been fighting to try to help Flint most of his life, thinks too many of us have drunk some of the right-wing urban propaganda Kool-Aid. There are plenty of people, many living today in rich suburbs like the Bloominghams, who blame cities' problems on bloated public sector employment, too-generous and underfunded benefit and pension plans, and corruption.

"I'm not saying these can't be serious issues; think Kwame Kilpatrick," Kildee says. "But they are usually really more symptoms of the greater problem, which is that federal policy towards cities is based on two faulty assumptions. They are, that all cities are growing at some rate, and that all land (eventually) appreciates in value."

That may have been largely true in the 1950s and '60s, even early '70s, but stopped being the case a long time ago. Yet millions of Americans still live in our older cities; they are important centers of art, culture, and commerce, and we neglect them at our peril.

Kildee has done more than run his mouth. He went to Congress five years ago when his uncle Dale Kildee finally retired.

Before that, however, he spent literally all but two years of his adult life as an elected local official, beginning at age 18, when he became the youngest member of the Flint school board.

Other positions followed, most notably more than a decade as county treasurer, where he founded the Genesee County Land Bank, which some have called the most successful of its kind in the nation.

Kildee first showed considerable bipartisan skill in going to a mostly Republican legislature and getting them to change the law to allow counties to take charge of all vacant land, which enabled first Genesee and then others to create land banks that had some power.

States, cities, and the federal government have studied it as a model. Though some have complained that Genesee's land bank has been too quick to demolish buildings and doesn't adequately maintain the ones it has, it has rehabilitated many others.

Prior to that, unscrupulous speculators were gobbling up land in Flint, flipping it, and accelerating its decline; the land bank, by common consent, has helped slow decline in a city that has been as hard hit as Detroit. "I've been an eyewitness to the biggest change any community can imagine," Kildee says. General Motors had 79,000 employees in Flint when he graduated from high school in 1976.

Today, there are maybe 10,000 left, the congressman says. Flint's population, now 96,000, is less than half its peak.

Kildee's devotion to Flint and success with the land bank meant no other Democrat even challenged him when his uncle stepped down after 36 years in Congress. The seat is safely Democratic, and if Dan Kildee wants, he can probably stay there till his teeth fall out. "I love this job," he says. But he admitted trying to get anything done there as a junior member of the minority party has often been frustrating.

Frustrating enough to run for governor in 2018?

Kildee admits he's been thinking about it. He has a powerful presence and a powerful, can-do attitude that might make him the Democrats' most formidable possibility in the next election.

He knows, however, he'd have to deal with a GOP-controlled state Senate, and says "I'd only want the job if I thought I could get something done." Whatever happens, two things are clear:

Michigan's cities badly need a champion. And this state badly needs leadership that can get something positive done.

Credit where credit is due

Last month, the Detroit Free Press' Joe Guillen reported that a class of investigative journalism students at Wayne State showed up at Mayor Mike Duggan's office this spring and were given the runaround and lied to about the agreement to swap land, including part of Riverside Park, with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

As Guillen reported, one flunky from the mayor's office lied to the students, Timothy Carroll and Alex Franzen, and claimed the document didn't exist. Later, the office claimed it wasn't a public record until it had been submitted to City Council for approval.

That's nonsense, of course, and all this makes Duggan's promises of transparency look like political bullshit.

These two students are indeed among Wayne's best. Carroll was a White House intern this summer; Franzen is the editor of the South End. The Free Press did well to highlight their valuable work.

But the story took pains not to mention the man who was really responsible for their success, Joel Thurtell, who teaches investigative reporting at Wayne State and who is a brilliant sleuth in his own right, the first reporter in town to begin exposing the truth about Matty Moroun.

Thurtell, who worked for the Free Press for years, is not in favor with their management these days; they once tried and failed to fire him for making a political contribution, and since his retirement, he has been occasionally critical of the paper and Gannett on his blog.

Of course, it could be only coincidence that Guillen, who interviewed Thurtell at length, didn't mention him in the story.

After all, there's no way any Gannett newspaper could be guilty of avoiding transparency, is there?

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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