What Detroit needs and what Detroit can get

On the eve of the most important primary election in contemporary Detroit history, the desire is to have a candidate who meets every one of the city’s needs, who puts a capable and proud face on Detroit as the city finds its place in the new global economy, and who has the drive and innovative thinking to succeed there and at home.

We wish for a man or woman who can pull the city out of its most serious financial quagmire ever, not through accounting prestidigitation and debt pass-alongs that are to be reconciled tomorrow and tomorrow, when tomorrow is here and now.

We are among those growing numbers who recognize regionalism as the only hope for a thriving southeast Michigan and desire a leader who can go to our suburban neighbors, not with hat in hand, but as a strong, cooperative partner. That person must be willing to drop the hateful baggage of old grievances and come out of the racial bunker looking forward. It would be foolish to say that racism no longer exists in metro Detroit. But to confront that honestly while laden with the immense weight of past hatreds is impossible and self-defeating. Don’t forget, don’t even forgive, but look at today, put it on the table, do the hard work to deal with it and look forward.

We hope for someone who can tackle development on a grand scale, not in large one-off projects downtown, but broadly, throughout this primarily residential city so that one day visitors can drive through and see any part of the city and admire it, not just a few blocks downtown that are spiffed up for single, grand events.

We need a leader who can restore the Detroit Police Department to efficiency and effectiveness, to work cooperatively with state, federal and other local law enforcement agencies so that residents throughout the city can read the seemingly rosy crime stats and see the reality of those numbers in their homes and neighborhoods, and not just percentages on paper. This will take more than knocking over dope houses in an endless, and unwinnable, cycle. And most importantly it will require taking city hall politics out of the cop shop and leaving policing and departmental business to professionals.

And we want a candidate who can show the political and personal will, the backbone, ethics and character to restore a sense of trust to the overburdened, woefully underserved taxpaying citizens of Detroit and those from outside who would invest in the city’s future.

That’s the type of candidate we desire and crucially need.

But how close can we come?

During the past two weeks, each of the four major mayoral candidates visited the Metro Times offices and spoke with an editorial board consisting of Editor Ric Bohy, Managing Editor W. Kim Heron, News Editor Curt Guyette and city hall reporter Nancy Kaffer.

Such an event has many parallels to a jury trial: The questioners not only weigh the answers, but also judge demeanor, credibility, capability and in general how the interview subject reacts to intense, sometimes skeptical, scrutiny.

We were left wanting. And what we wanted, when the interviews were finished, was to take characteristics from each of the candidates and build the ideal choice for mayor of Detroit.

In the case of incumbent Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, both the coverage and commentary in these pages have left no doubt what we think of his first term in office: His administration is plagued by problems, especially its questionable credibility, and failed to confront the city’s deteriorating financial situation until a crisis loomed. The result is that, despite the mayor’s insistent claim that it will never happen, the city faces a very real threat of receivership.

But had we only his two one-hour interviews to judge him by, he would have stood out as the clear favorite.

Kilpatrick’s two strongest attributes are intelligence and charisma. He is, when it serves him and when he wants to be, an extraordinarily impressive and magnetic personality. He speaks to the city’s problems with the seeming passion and dedication of the lifelong Detroiter he is. His words, more often than not, make sense. But his deeds, all too often, do not.

The self-interested callousness that he has displayed in office has been well-documented here and elsewhere, and has drawn national and international attention. He has been described by Time magazine as one of the country’s worst big-city mayors.

When asked to explain the scandals of his mayoralty, he writes them off to poor communications with hostile and lazy media, intentional distortion of the facts and misinformation, and racial animus toward the “legend of Kwame Kilpatrick” that portrays him as a womanizing megalomaniac who’s proud of having “gotten over” and is enjoying the spoils at the expense of the people he purports to serve.

While he once apologized publicly for unspecified failings in office, he betrays a general inability to admit when he’s wrong — an attribute, ironically, of the current administration in Washington.

But we would like to see a candidate with his brains, his facility with facts, and his vigor and vitality.

Challenger and Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail impressed us, at least when she sat before us, with her poise, many of her ideas for attacking Detroit’s problems, and a litigator’s skill with handling debate and argument. But she has another side that has been seen at the council table — and during this latest of her many campaigns for public office. When questioned about such lapses in judgment as her involvement in the racially offensive “Sambo Awards,” she insists that she did nothing untoward, and that the criticisms are misguided or just plain wrong — all evidence to the contrary. Whatever’s at the core of this is the subject of much speculation among those who know her and those she is paid to serve. Our concern is that she lacks the equanimity the city needs in tough times.

She has also saddled herself with a “running mate” — something not encompassed by the City Charter — in former Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon. The federal watchdogs now overseeing the Detroit Police Department showed up during Napoleon’s watch to monitor and order improvements for an often brutal department in shambles.

As for state Sen. Hansen Clarke and his quixotic campaign to unseat Kilpatrick, we would take his heart and passion. We listened to the story of a difficult childhood on the East Side of Detroit, how poverty and crime nearly overtook him before, in early adulthood, he chose to overcome them. Boyhood friends and acquaintances did not do as well, and some died violent deaths.

We believe he’s a sincere man, dedicated to helping the downtrodden people and neighborhoods he left behind. His emotion in speaking about past tragedies and current inequities is both palpable and visible; he was overcome with that emotion several times during our interview. But that isn’t a positive in a candidate who would assume the crushingly tough, emotionally challenging job of Detroit mayor.

We were also struck by Clarke’s shortage of specific, real-world solutions to the city’s many — and often, seemingly intractable — problems. We’ve heard most of his ideas before, some already voiced by other candidates, but almost nothing in the way of realistic, well-thought-out and articulated cures for Detroit’s critical ailments. To be blunt, he appeared to be a man playing what he thought a candidate should be, but not yet ready for Broadway.

Finally, there is challenger and former deputy to Mayor Dennis Archer, Freman Hendrix, our choice in the Aug. 2 primary election — an endorsement we make with certain reservations.

First, it goes against our grain to endorse a candidate already commended to voters by the mainstream press in Detroit.

More importantly, we’re concerned about his personal and professional involvement with the now-decaying McNamara machine in Wayne County. Not only did he serve in former Wayne County Exec Ed McNamara’s administration — which has long been under intense federal scrutiny in a corruption investigation that’s already produced one criminal conviction — he has been an investor in business ventures with McNamara and two of his top appointees.

But on that note, we must point out that an 11th-hour attempt was made to doctor up one of those business transactions to look like an enormous bribe paid Hendrix for some unspecified reason during the Archer administration. We were presented with public documents that purported to show exactly that. But many pages were missing from the documents, and when we looked for and located them, they not only didn’t prove corruption, but showed that the business deal was precisely as described by Hendrix to us when we confronted him with the initial “evidence” — an above-board investment.

We’re also concerned with some aspects of Hendrix’s performance during his tenure as deputy mayor of Detroit. Reports produced by the city’s auditor general near the end of Archer’s two terms show that many city departments were still dysfunctional. As Archer’s deputy, Hendrix bears part of the responsibility for those shortfalls.

Yet he has impressive ideas for a safer, saner, revitalized Detroit and has produced volumes of position papers and specifics about how he would plan to pull it all off if elected mayor.

They’re not amorphous fantasies. They are put forth by a man who has served the public without the taint of scandal, although soiled somewhat by his associations. He is mature, businesslike and bright. We believe he has the personal history and level head to deal constructively with metro Detroit’s racial divide. And he well knows the turf and the players.

His experience as deputy mayor removes the learning curve for new officeholders, a crucial factor at a point in the city’s history when there’s no time for on-the-job training, no margin of error to allow for rookie mistakes.

It remains to be seen whether Detroit’s problems are intractable without outside intervention. If Detroit is fixable, it’s possible Hendrix won’t be the one to do it. But from what we’ve seen, he’s the best hope the city has of avoiding receivership, and starting it on the path to true rebirth.

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