What's a new mayor to do?

Regardless of what happens in the world terrorism war, Detroit is still going to elect a new mayor next month. And if you haven’t been paying all that much attention, that’s sort of understandable. Here’s a secret about the news business: The New York Times’ famous motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” is actually a clever parody of the truth. The reality for any paper is more like, “All the News That Fits, We Print.”

Fits, that is, into a certain number of pages or a half-hour broadcast. Want proof? Did you notice that the U.S. Postal Service wants to raise the price of a first-class stamp from 34 cents to 37 cents in January? I doubt it; they announced this on Sept. 11. Heard much about how much Chandra Levy’s parents miss her lately? You get the idea.

However, figuring out who Detroit’s next mayor should be is worth turning off CNN for a while. In the long run, this is apt to impact most of us far more than the threat of postal anthrax. That includes those who don’t live in the city. Fact is, the prosperity, image and general well-being of all 4 million of us in the metro area are intertwined.

This election is so important in large part because the condition of the city is so desperate — far more so than commonly known. The number of census tracts where a majority of children live in poverty nearly doubled during the booming years of the 1990s. The black middle class is fleeing to Southfield and beyond.

Education reform is allegedly under way, but the appalling truth is that no sane person who could afford an alternative would enroll a youngster in Detroit public schools. There are many miles of residential streets so blasted, just looking at them ought to make anyone very angry. And now unemployment is rising again, and it always rises faster for the poor, who have the most to lose.

Less than two weeks from now, Detroiters choose a new mayor. And for the first time in many years, I am not certain who will win — or who should.

Nor are the candidates really helping with this. Eight years ago, in the last seriously contested election, personalities were certainly an issue. But Dennis Archer and Sharon McPhail had starkly different priorities, positions on the issues, and well-developed platforms, and the voters knew, at least in theory, what they were choosing.

This time, the candidates are, on paper, much more different from the two middle-aged lawyers who faced off in 1993. Yet as far as I can tell, trying to figure out what either of them would do as mayor is like punching cotton. Both are in favor of improving our neighborhoods, better education, brotherhood, honoring our fallen martyrs, ta-da ta-da ta-da. One stresses experience; the other, freshness and connections. If anyone’s sphincters are twitching, it isn’t apparent.

Gil Hill, the one-time heavy favorite, turns 70 on Election Day. Lots of experts have been trotted out to testify that this isn’t too old to be mayor. Some, unfortunately, compare him to Ronald Reagan, who was semi-out of it toward the end of his presidency. Hill says experience counts. But, he needs to be asked, for what? What would he do with it? What, for that matter, has he done during the dozen years he has been on Detroit City Council? Would he make dramatic changes now?

Kwame Kilpatrick is an astonishingly young 31, intelligent, articulate and energetic. Perhaps the best thing recommending him is that he earned a reputation as a skilled legislator who could make deals with folks across the spectrum during his short tenure as House minority leader in Lansing. He is not shy about bragging that his momma is the congresswoman and his daddy is Boss McNamara’s chief of staff. What that means, he says, is that he can get things done. But what? What does he want to do? What are his top priorities and biggest goals for this city?

This much is clear: Gil Hill ran an astoundingly bad primary campaign, seeming very old, very out of touch and very distant. Kilpatrick, who came across as disarmingly open, fresh and energetic, kicked major butt, winning an absolute majority.

Lately, however, the tables seem turned. Hill has seemed re-energized; Kilpatrick on the defensive. Various people who eventually want to be mayor are endorsing Hill, partly because they feel his tired bones are good for one term at best. The polls have tightened and all indications are the race will end, like most tawdry campaigns at all levels these days, with a barrage of nasty negative ads by both sides.

What we need to force Kilpatrick and Hill to tell us is what their vision for Detroit is — and how they plan to get it done. Experts know that no major aging city can make it without some sort of metropolitan or regional government. Do they agree?

Would they work for that — or are they still playing the tired old mock-separatist game? When, last summer, I asked Kilpatrick whether Detroit needs more white people, he said he didn’t know. That was stupid, or contemptible; it certainly does, just as any area needs diversity. You could quadruple the city’s tiny white population without threatening black political control in the slightest.

On the other hand, when I asked Hill if there was a problem with rogue killer cops, he said he thought it was a “perception problem.” If he really believes that, he belongs in the retired policemen’s rest home. The voters and the media need to force these guys to be better than that. Detroit needs to make the best choice possible this time. Everything I know tells me this won’t be an easy four years.

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