What the Archer years meant

Apr 25, 2001 at 12:00 am

He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you ...
—Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968

Nobody, as far as I know, ever compared Dennis Wayne Archer to Martin Luther King Jr., or, for that manner, Moses. Yet there are a few interesting parallels:

All three tried to deliver their people from a long and difficult nightmare era. None would be on hand to see any final victory — if it ever came — and all, while on-stage, seem to have sensed that they wouldn’t be around for the last act.

Last week, Dennis Archer showed he had more political savvy and willpower than I expected by unexpectedly refusing to run again. That showed more political smarts than almost anything he had done before.

Politicians usually do not give up power. I expected him to run again, and to win, mostly because he could have, and no higher office was on the horizon. And then, I expected to see his political career slowly dissolve. Third terms are usually a bad idea; the public and the media grow weary of too-familiar faces. The most talented staffers leave; too often, a few of those remaining stray into theft, graft or corruption.

Odds are this would have been a particularly punishing four years for Archer. Much of what he could accomplish has been done. The psychological climate is better; crime is down; the new stadiums are reality, the casinos up and running. Whether you approve of the method or the men involved, an attempt at school reform is underway.

What remains to be done — the really hard and important part — will be, at best, very, very slow going. That includes finding the capital and willpower to do something about vast areas that look more like Berlin in 1945 than they do any functioning American city. That means somehow attracting a stable middle class, and, yes, though no one dare say it, increasing the white percentage of the population.

Diversity is necessary if Detroit is to prosper, and there isn’t much now.

Any mayor will have to tackle these things, any one of which makes building a new stadium look ridiculously easy, against a backdrop of harder times and an indifferent-to-unfriendly administration in Washington.

Truthfully, Archer did not live up to the hopes and dreams his candidacy stirred eight years ago. Probably no one could have. Today, most Detroit neighborhoods still look a lot more like wilderness than promised land, and thousands are still leaving the tribe, striking out for the Southfields, voting with their feet.

But while Archer didn’t “save” Detroit, his harshest critics aren’t fair either. This column has been more critical of some of his policies than much of the rest of the media, which too often acted essentially as his press agents.

Yet on balance, Dennis Archer did Detroit more good than harm. You can argue about many of his decisions, that he gave too much to the Ilitches, say, or took too long to crack down on killer cops. You can wonder at his stubborn insistence on trying to group the casinos on the riverfront long after it was clear it would never happen.

He was not, in fact, a natural politician at all, let alone a charismatic leader. Instead, he by temperament resembled the state Supreme Court justice he had been far more than a typical big-city mayor. Running for re-election, he won a vastly higher percentage of the vote than Coleman A. Young ever could have.

But Archer’s supporters voted for him without passion; it was the sensible or self-serving thing to do. Thousands would have charged the barricades for Coleman. Try to imagine, without chuckling, anyone doing that for Dennis Archer. Not that this is all bad; there is something to be said for sober common sense.

What Archer did do — with some success — was to create the preconditions for the city’s revival. Coleman Young’s last two or three terms were disastrous, as he allowed his own bitterness to spill out in ways that impacted negatively on the city. Detroit did, in early 1994, have to send a signal that it was time to get beyond the city vs. suburbs (read: black vs. white) name-calling and start doing business.

They did that, and it was heard. What happens now is anybody’s guess. I haven’t a clue yet who will end up Detroit’s next mayor. But what I do know is that they need to build on what Dennis Archer began as far as city-suburban rapprochement is concerned, and spread it outstate, and to the Legislature.

For without metropolitan cooperation, the region doesn’t have a chance. The next mayor — and the next governor who (thank God) will arrive a year later — need to figure out a way to work together to make things work as they never have before.

Otherwise, Detroit will wither — dangerously.

Moses and Martin Luther King Jr. had an advantage. They knew things were moving their way. Hours before he was shot, MLK concluded the speech quoted above this way: “ … I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

Unfortunately, we, as Detroiters, can’t say we know that for sure.

Not yet, anyway. Someday, if we ever really learn, all of us, that Detroit stretches from Sterling Heights to Wyandotte, we may get there. If we want to, that is.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]