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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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