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A Bold Call To Bail Out Detroit

Should the federal government bail out Detroit?

Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson thinks so, and she's saying as much to anyone who'll listen (and even to those who won't). Speaking at a forum for city council candidates this morning, the councilwoman called for the Obama Administration to provide Detroit with a one-time, $1-billion bailout to wipe away our $300-million budget deficit and help jump-start revitalization. And then she said it again -- just to make sure you heard her and know that she's deadly serious.

Watson realizes that this a bold idea. She knows that there will be howls from critics who say the city doesn't deserve it or that the federal government can't afford it or that a bailout won't keep us from winding up right back in these same dire straits. She is well-versed on the counter arguments. And she's not paying them a bit of mind, because she thinks it can work.

Admittedly, I was surprised when I first heard the comment, not because I don't think Detroit needs the money, but because of the boldness of the request. No politicians in this town -- even those with twice Watson's clout -- have even shaped their lips to suggest this kind of relief, even though few of them seem to have any real plan for the city beyond not being Kwame Kilpatrick. So I called the councilwoman's office to see if she would be willing to elaborate.

A long-time activist known around the country for her work with the Detroit NAACP, Watson doesn't back down much, if at all. And she certainly didn't when I rang her up and asked her to further explain her proposal.

"If the federal government can get a loan from China, if the state of Michigan can get $2 billion in federal stimulus money, why isn't it obvious for the city of Detroit?" she said. "Why not establish us as an important precedent? They've bailed out Wall Street. They've bailed out General Motors. When are they going to bail out the workers? And Detroit's problems are a direct result of the economic meltdown and the crisis in the auto industry. Michigan's problems are.

"And don't tell me we don't deserve it. Of course we do. The city of Detroit has been a leader in industry, in labor. We built the vehicles in World War II. Our unions have helped lead the nation to more humane work conditions, whether it be in terms of sick pay or the five-day work week. We have led the nation, and we've been dependent on an industry that's been hit hard. So if the federal government sees fit to bail out GM -- and I'm not mad about that because I went to Washington to help ask for bailouts for the car companies -- then the government needs to bailout the city that depends so much on GM. You cannot allow this to continue to happen to one of your largest cities."

In addition to getting rid of the deficit, Watson says, bailout funds could also be used to further a new vision for the city, something she's laid out in a document she calls "The Marshall Plan for Detroit," a plan she's been working on for several months now. Among other things, the plan calls for strong public transportation, job creation for the heads of Detroit households, investment in neighborhoods and -- my favorite -- reduction of the operational size of Detroit to promote greening of the city and to better provide services to residents. She also speaks in realistic terms about right-sizing the city workforce, stemming excessive real-estate speculation and making other hard -- and politically unpopular -- choices to get Detroit moving again.

In discussing her plan, she doesn't talk about Detroit in terms of blight and decay. She talks in terms of its potential, of what she believes geography, history and circumstance have positioned Detroit to one day become. She talks big.

"This is a Midwest megalopolis," she says. "We've got waterways. We've got land. We sit on an international border. We have everything it takes for this city to be great. But the federal government should partner with Detroit. This isn't a handout. This is an investment in the biggest city in the hardest hit state in the country, a state that has traditionally never gotten back in federal dollars and assistance what we've sent to Washington (as tax dollars). We should stop this hand-wringing. We need to get people together, the citizens, the workers, the people who believe in Detroit, and we need to go to Washington, D.C. and say to them that we deserve a bailout, too."

Frankly, I don't disagree with much of this -- but what are your thoughts? Do you agree with the councilwoman that Detroit should be bailed out? Why? Or why not?

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