The Sisyphus of Jefferson Avenue

The MT interview with Tom Barrow

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

This is Tom Barrow’s fourth attempt to become mayor of Detroit. A CPA who co-founded his own firm after working for Arthur Andersen, Barrow ran against incumbent Coleman A. Young twice in the 1980s and faced off against Dave Bing in 2009.

Metro Times:We get the sense you haven’t stopped campaigning since the last election.

Tom Barrow:First, persistence is a virtue; it’s not a vice. In 2009, after I had lost, I had actually accepted it and told the media that I’ve accepted it, that I’ve done the best that I could. If I couldn’t win under these circumstances, then I couldn’t and I accepted it. But I ended that conversation by saying I’m just going to recount a few of the cases [ballot boxes] just to make sure, because the results were different than what we thought would’ve happened.

To make the long story short, the seals on the cases had been changed, and even when they did open up cases, the number of ballots and so on didn’t match. And then when we caught them trying to cover it up by making phony lists and the like, I became convinced that there’s corruption. And it’s been going on for a long while.

I believe that the public is ready, they’re crying out for change. They want leadership, and we’re desperate for it, and that’s what’s impacting our spirit, because we don’t have it. We can no longer do that name recognition thing. That puts us in the toilet, and we see now if we do that again with the big name who has a demonstrated record of incompetence in terms of fiscal management, we’re going to be right back to where we were, the same players will be back in place, and nothing will change. And people will say, well you’ve been around, you tried and you didn’t win. Well, I don’t think we lost in 2000 — I think I am the change, and I think that’s why folks that are doing what they did — hacking the computer and then trying to cover it up — know that Tom Barrow knows the players. I know who all the people are who were scratching, trying to get back in their old position, all the business folks who are benefiting. 

MT:So what is it that is driving you so hard to make you want to be mayor?

Barrow:Because I think the issues confronting the city are right in my wheelhouse. I saw it coming a decade ago, or more. … Our leadership didn’t understand that you gotta deal with these issues. We have incompetent management. We don’t have a financial adult. And as we’ve gone by every year, it would get bigger and bigger to now these overruns in the departments are causing massive issues, making it appear as if we are in a state of chaos. I read the financials, I read the projections, I read the forecasts. I understand that stuff. It’s in my wheelhouse.

MT: Former auditor general Joe Harris was predicting many of these problems a decade ago.

Barrow: You could see it. I could see it more than 10 years ago, and that’s why when we put these leaderships based on your name, they don’t have the competence. A lawyer, a police officer, we’re going to be right back to where we are. It’s not your wheelhouse. If I want to know how to do something in a square mile crime or something, maybe I’ll talk to ya. But now I see such lawlessness, such disregard for fundamental financial rules, the city’s not business, but it has attributes of a business.

MT:Do you think that the current emergency manager law is legal?

Barrow:It’s clearly unconstitutional, it’s clearly illegal. I think it shows a disregard for the will of the public. I think that it is the exercise of a very conservative agenda set forth by the Mackinac Center, the American Legislative Exchange Council. There’s no financial emergency here. Long-term debt can never a create short-term emergency — it just can’t. That’s fundamental Finance 101.

The problem, again, is that the people who are in control are out of their wheelhouse, and so they don’t understand that. That’s why we never ran out of cash — I told people that seven, eight, nine, 10 months ago; last August, so a year ago — that we’re not going to run out of cash. This is all false and a phony ruse and I said as much to the state treasurer when I met with him along with the Honorable JoAnn Watson.

MT:What do you see the role of the mayor being in relation to the emergency manager if you get elected?

Barrow:I think the big question to me is what does he see his role with me. I’m the mayor, I have a city council. We still have the ability to legislate; we still have the ability to pass laws.

MT:What do you think your weaknesses as mayor would be?

Barrow:You know, I think my biggest weakness, if I call it a weakness, is that I get disturbed when people don’t do the detail. I can get along with a person who makes mistakes and is incompetent as long as I know I can trust that person and that person’s loyal. I get disturbed when that loyal person comes to me with answers that are off the top of their head and they haven’t looked into the underlying facts and they represent it to me as if it is fact, and then I act in reliance. … I get impatient with it. Not in a negative way where I strike out, but in a way that I can no longer rely on you.

MT:It is frequently pointed you that you were once convicted of tax evasion and served time.

Barrow:And I’m comfortable with that. … For 19 years I fought them. I resisted, I bucked. I told them, “You’re wrong, and you know you’re wrong. You calculated it wrong and you calculated it wrong deliberately. You deliberately held records from me that I couldn’t get that you knew would’ve proven otherwise.” It’s a game to them. They’re playing with somebody’s life and it’s a game. It was wrongful. Nineteen years I fought. I know I’ve been wronged, and I know I’m not alone. It’s happening all the time. …

MT:If you do get elected, what would your administration’s top three priorities be and how long should people wait until they see results?

Barrow:I think the first priority is to get back control of the city. Put it back under [the people’s] democratic ownership and control, I think that’s lost. How do I do that? I do have a plan to do that, because I do not think that the mayor and council have lost their ability to pass ordinances and to pass rules. If he [Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr] locks us out, we’ll meet out in front on the sidewalk. We’re going to be the mayor and council. It’ll make national news. We’ll stand up. The thing is we’re going to get back control of our city. Secondly, I think the police chief is going to have to start reporting to me. He’s not going to be able to report to Mr. Orr, and I’m going to make that explicitly clear. What’s happening here is they’re creating a chaos that doesn’t need to be created, and they want to do it with impunity, because they want this city’s assets. So public safety to me is the second item. I think we’ve got to make the community safe. I think we have to do it by seeking new sources of revenue to do that. That’s why we’re talking about our 4 percent “heroes tax” on entertainment. I’ll go to the legislature and I’ll make my case with them and to the governor, why we need to begin to place a surcharge on a ticket to the Lions game, on a ticket to a Red Wings game, ticket to a Tigers game and the like. And then take that money and hire police officers and firefighters — 500 new police officers, 200 new firefighters, 67 new EMS personnel, 13 new EMS rigs, and put them out on the streets in the neighborhood.

MT:That’s two things. What would be the third?

Barrow:I think the third thing is economic development. I think creating jobs. If you want to impact crime, you gotta be able to get people a way to be able to earn a living, but a living that pays a living wage, something that they can do something with. I’ll create a deputy mayor of small business development. We’ll also have someone who’s in charge of larger business development. We’re going to be able to create an atmosphere to create those jobs.

We have a lot of old housing stock. I think it’s really good housing stock that the city owns. It’s old, and it needs rehabbing and the like. So we’re going to create these nonprofit housing corporations and, using grant money, we’re going to hire ex-offenders who are coming out of the system who want to work, who want to do something, but they just can’t find that job because they’ve been blacklisted. And then we’re going to hire them, pay them a decent wage, and we’re going to rehab those houses. And then we’re going to take the money from that and do other houses, and so on. We’ll be able to create thousands of jobs. And then I’m going to go to the business community. I like what Dan Gilbert is doing downtown, quite frankly. I like the idea of having outside cafés and being able to walk around and have dinner or lunch or something, I mean, that’s great. But it’s gotta reach out. We gotta branch it out, so something’s happening in the neighborhoods.

City ordinances, you know, you see merchants who don’t take care of the front of their property — there are ordinances against that, who don’t sweep and pick up the weeds or whatever it is in the property, there’s ordinances. Residents who don’t cut their grass and let it grow high — there’s ordinances. So I’m going to empower the block clubs. Bring them all down to Cobo Hall, and instruct them on the city ordinances, then that block club president, vice president and secretary are going to write a letter to that homeowner, they’re going to put it on the owner’s door and give them 72 hours or whatever the ordinance says — it already exists. You gotta cut your grass. At the end of those 72 hours, we’re going to cut. And then they’ll have a number to call, we’ll have a vendor go out, cut their grass and we’ll put it on their tax rolls. We’ll do what we gotta do to be able to create, to get our pride back. Our spirit is just broken. So that’s our three — economic development, small businesses and jobs, public safety and getting back control of our city.

MT: There has been a certain influx to parts of the city, but the net is that the city continues to still lose people. And so how do you address the situation to stop it so that the population doesn’t continue to decline?

Barrow: I guess I would probably reject your premise. I think your premise is flawed. I think that we have a lot of folks moving in, a lot of folks moving in. I think we’re having net gains. I don’t think anybody can tell whether we have a net loss or a net gain. I know that we have had some loss of population; I think that our population is higher than the 714,000 that they’re saying. I think that there’s — you know when Coleman Young was mayor, and you were going to do a census, he made sure that people knew that the census would have nothing to do with your aid, nothing to do with your status, all we want to be able to do is get our money…  Coleman Young would tell folks that when the census taker comes, just tell them the number of folks in the house. We don’t care about the — it’s not going to affect your aid, not gonna affect your legal status. But it will affect what we’re going to get for revenue-sharing and all the other kinds of things. And folks talked to them. That didn’t happen this time, because again, we had an ineffectual leader. I think that our numbers are larger. Having said that, I think that the number of folks that are coming into the community, I think we’re getting more of those than are leaving, and I see the evidence of that, primarily in the Corktown area, in the Cass Corridor area. I see it on the east side where I live at. I see lots of families coming in who are with young children, I see lots of that. I don’t see an increase in number of vacant houses. I don’t see that, so I think there’s a net growth going on. It’s just that it’s part of the paradigm that creates this devaluing of Detroit to make it sound like everybody is still leaving. I don’t think that’s happening.

MT: Regardless of the net in terms of population, most of the revitalization in those areas that you talked about: Corktown, Downtown, Midtown. What can you tell the people in the other neighborhoods what you could do to help improve the situations there?

Barrow: I think I’ve gotta tell the people out there in the community, out in the neighborhoods, which is where ordinary, everyday folks live, that, you know, I’m aware. I’m aware of your concerns about safety, I’m aware of your concerns about blight. I’m aware of your concerns about the businesses not coming back into there, and we’re going to address it. It’s been ignored for too long in favor of the other sections of the city. The other sections are going to do well, particularly under the new charter. They’re going to create their advisory councils, they’re going to do all those kinds of things. It’s the sections of the city that don’t have that available, that your mayor is going to be responding to now, as well as downtown. Not just downtown, but we’re going to respond to the whole city, and I’m going to resurrect that spirit that’s in it. Detroiters are resilient. They dig down deep, as they said this morning, they dig down deep. Detroiters are going to come back. Because their spirit is strong, and we’re resilient that way, and so I want them to know that I see it. That’s what my deputy mayor of small business development’s going to be about. We’re going to go to the churches, we’re going to have them break off a little piece of that collection every Sunday, we’re going to have them put it into a particular financial institution and make that little bit of money available as capital to grow a small business. That’s one of the biggest problems we have with our businesses — we don’t have access to capital. The banks are not lending to us, so when we have, for example, a supermarket over here that wanted to open up in Lafayette Park that was minority-owned, black-owned, it was a great venue. It had a nice, clean supermarket, nice clean well-paved parking lot. But not having access to capital, it couldn’t create and continue the inventory that it needed to function. As a result, you go in one time and they don’t have any Cheerios, or they don’t have Frosted Flakes, you don’t come back again. You go in one time and you have one row of rice, one row of something where there should be in every other place, three or four rows of it, you don’t come back again. And so it dies for lack of access to capital. I understand that as a business guy, and those are the kind of things we gotta do to resurrect the neighborhoods, re-establish that pride, enforce those ordinances, make it all happen. We’ve gotta make it rain.

MT: How important is it to foster regional cooperation with the county executives and surrounding counties?

Barrow: I think that’s essential, but let me talk about regional cooperation because I’m very big on that, I think we gotta cooperate. And I want us to cooperate, and I would certainly look for the opportunity to find a way where we can do it. But we’ve gotta do it from a commonality of respect. For example, we need a regional — some kind of way where we can have all the transportation stuff combined, so that people can get, efficiently, from point A to point B to get to their jobs. I understand that. Detroit’s bus system used to go as far north as Pontiac, as far east as Mount Clemens, as far west as Ann Arbor. That was changed under the Archer Administration in conjunction with, of course, Mike Duggan. I think that if we create some kind of system, let’s do it fairly. Let me say what I mean. If I create a regional transportation authority, which I guess the state and the conservatives have already done, if we’re going to put in assets, if we’re all going to put in money and we’re going to put in equal amounts of money, then we’re all equal, because we all put in the same amount of money. If, however, we’re going to put in assets and if I put in an asset that’s three times more valuable than the asset you put in, it doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair to then say that we’re going to share who’s going to run it or you’re going to have control over who’s going to run it when you put in substantially less than I put in. That’s just illogical, and nobody who was being fair would want that. 

MT:  What’s something we didn’t ask that you’d like to address?

Barrow:I hear people talking about Detroit — I hear people from the suburbs, they love this city. I want them to know that I realize they love this city. They love their old neighborhoods. They see them go down and they know it’s not the same as it was when they were growing up in it. The problem is that they don’t know how to express that love in such a way that it doesn’t create a defensive response. I think that that mayor of Detroit, the next mayor, has got to reach across the boundaries of the city. And we’ve gotta bring everybody together, and have a discussion on race. That’s just the reality of it. Detroiters need to know why people in the suburban communities see the city in the manner in which they do, and why they express it in the manner in which they do. And then the people across our boundary lines need to understand and talk with Detroiters and understand why we see things in the manner in which we do: why we are protective over Belle Isle, why we are protective over the city’s assets and jewels, why we have such a strong connection to the land. That conversation has to take place and it has to be engendered by somebody. I’m going to engender that conversation, because I think folks love it. I want them to understand us, and I think that we can work together, I think that we can build a region together. I think that we can cooperate together. But we gotta do it with mutual respect.

MT:We have a couple of lighter questions.

Barrow:I need something light.

MT:What three songs are always on your iPod?

Barrow:Well you want the truth on this one? Make sure that you record this: I don’t own an iPod. Secondly, I can’t name three records. I like classical music. I like square stuff. I like going to the museum. I like going to the Art Institute. I like going to a cabaret.

MT:OK. Do you have an all-time favorite movie?

Barrow:I don’t. … I can tell you what I used to like, what my favorite TV program was — it was the The F.B.I. with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. It came on at 8 p.m., and at 10 minutes to 9 p.m. They always got their man. … I remember all that, those are things that shaped my life because I wanted to be an FBI agent, I wanted to be a policeman. And that’s how I become an accountant, because you had to be an accountant or a lawyer to get into the FBI.

MT: So you wanted to be a do-gooder from the time you were a kid.

Barrow: I think that’s the way my parents raised me, but also Catholic upbringing. And you’re taught persistence. You don’t give up. You don’t give up easily, and I’ve been, goodness knows I’ve been beat down, and I remember when I went through the trials of my life, I remember sitting in the car afterward, and I remember crying, thinking, how could anybody think I would do something like this? How could anybody think that? And it always bothered me, that people would think that. Because I’m not like that. I get choked up over that now.