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Detroit's Election: What's at Stake

Today's general election in Detroit can be seen as an exercise to affirm the legitimacy of Dave Bing. The former NBA star and steel magnate became mayor in a special election last May to fulfill the second-term of Kwame Kilpatrick, who left office in disgrace.

Bing's election will be an important step in restoring Detroit's credibility in the eyes of the world. Few people have the temperament and business acumen to seriously attempt to pull Detroit from the brink of financial collapse. His turnaround strategy is built on a single argument: The size of Detroit's government must be sharply reduced to be proportionate with a city that has shrinking tax coffers, and whose population has been more than halved from a 1950s peak of 2 million.

Already, Bing has moved to resolve a budget deficit of at least $275 million, partly by trimming the city's workforce by thousands – a move that has angered Detroit's historically strong unions. His efforts to reduce bus service has been politically risky, since many Motor City residents cannot even afford to own cars to get to work (and, importantly, church). In many ways, Bing's efforts so far stimulate the debate on what fundamental services a municipal government should provide its citizens.

Last week, the 65-year-old Bing told TIME, “I don't worry about the election so much.” Mainly, it's because he doesn't have to. Bing captured 70% of the vote in the primary election last August. But barely 17% of Detroit's nearly half-million registered voters bothered to show up at the polls. Officials here expect less than 30% to participate in today's elections. There are several explanations. First, voters here are simply fatigued after four costly elections this year to resolve who will ultimately succeed Kilpatrick. Secondly, the race between Bing and Tom Barrow, a businessman who has repeatedly failed to gain political traction, has hardly excited Detroit's electorate. Not like the 2005 race between Kilpatrick and Freeman Hendrix, which presented a dynamic clash of age and class.

Driving through the streets of Detroit in recent days, it's been hard to tell an election of such importance was approaching. There are few campaign signs. Few ordinary Detroiters talk about what's at stake in this election. Maybe it's because so many are consumed with the realities of surviving in a city that has an unemployment rate of nearly 30%. But sadly, there is a sense that many here do not treat voting as an obligatory civic duty.

Nevertheless, Bing faces several challenges. He arrived in city hall promising significant change. Yet he has retained several key officials from Kilpatrick's administration. “Should he be elected,” says Mildred Gaddis, a popular radio host here, “He needs to clean house and bring in people with integrity. That will give people something to believe in.” Some polls expected Bing to win as much as 80% of Detroit's votes today. But Bill Ballenger, a pollster and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, says, “That's not going to happen.”

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  • 1

    Hey Steven,

    Make sure you always get another take on whatever Gaddis says. She has her biases and can be a real sh*t-stirrer, not in a good way. Be careful.

    • 1.1

      While I don't agree with Gaddis on various issues, people like her are necessary because the major media is so bias. You must have other sources to at least give people enough information to find the truth! What they say, what the others say and what really is so!

  • 2

    This is the first blog, Steven, where it felt as if it comes from your own observations of the city rather than back issues of Time. Noticing the lack of campaign signs was a nice touch. More of that, please. I'm more curious about an actual person's perception of the city as a guest than updates on old stories.

    • 2.2

      Honest observations may be honest but that doesn't mean they are accurate or adequately informed. Certainly there are some things you wonder about??

    • 2.3

      What I mean is that the observation might be accurate but the interpretation of the purpose/meaning/symbolism might be incorrect.

      Detroit's a very organic city and unique in some regards. As I suggested earlier don't try to force it to a predetermined set of standards. Just experience it (and us) for what is and with an open mind and heart.

  • 3

    Detroit needs better public transit, now, more than ever. Not just to serve the poor but everyone. Many senior citizens and also families with only one auto are leaving the city to Detroit's suburbs that have not only better bus service but lots of good stores and markets in walking distance! Used to be the city had these things. But the city is turning into a vast prairie of nothingness. Visit, click St.Cyrils, one of many sites to view, for a view of the old neighborhood I grew up in back in the 60's. Today this once prosperous area is nothing, all vacant land!!!

  • 4

    Steven, articles like this further promote the continued bias in the media. This is especially sensitive and irresponsible on the day of the election. Clearly you bought into the bias of your colleagues, and Mr. Bing will be the savior of Detroit. It is not helpful to have only one side of a story told, because of who controls major media. What's at stake is that the good things about a city may be submerged in the name of progress. Yes there are serious problems, but if Mr. Bing is about to file bankrupcy for his own business and his chief of staff is a convicted felon for bribery when he served as head of the water department (which is illegal) what changes are really going to be made and in whose interests? I have one question for you: "Did you ever research the background of Mr. Barrow and Bing for yourself? I bet that you did not research Barrow to really know who he is. Now Detroit and it's assets will probably parceled out for sale for those other than Detroiters to benefit from; just like the current situation with Greektown Casino. Local African American investors "kicked to the curb" by Merril Lynch and Bank of America (benefitting from Econ. Stimulus money twice! Very little trickle down for the residents.

  • 5

    This article reflects what needs to be reflected, a lot of why we're where we are as a city is voter apathy while at the same time having an overdependence on city government to solve our problems. I don't think talking about Mr. Barrow is relevant considering Bing's overwhelming support from the *voting* citizens.

    • 5.1

      In addition to voter apathy, there is also the issue of illiteracy making large amounts of Detroiters incapable of digesting and analyzing the candidates platforms and other initiatives to assure that they are supporting what and who will really support and address their needs. So it is quite relevant to bring Mr. Barrow into the conversation; it's just that this forum may not be most appropriate place to have impact with that population.

    • 5.2

      In all the bickering and finger pointing that's gone on over the years the one thing I rarely see addressed in depth is the City Charter and the impact of various revisions to it. A lot of people look to the Cavanagh/Young transition as a major turning point but few mention that a major charter revision was initiated under the Cavanagh administration and was finally adopted in 1974 during the Young administration. The charter that was replaced dated back to 1918 and ruled the city during its boom years.

      I found this brief charter history, dated July 1993, online. Some of the language used in its description of the argument to amend the charter in the late 1960s ("unduly hampering", "eliminate many legal constraints", "impeding innovation", "eliminate obstacles") is eerily similar to arguments used to loosen controls in the financial sector, leading to its collapse.

  • 6

    [...] since we all love Detroit, I want all my fellow LionsDetroit fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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