Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 9, 2009

Op-Ed: There may be hope for Detroit

By JACK LESSENBERRY

The wonder of it was not that Dave Bing, basketball star-turned businessman-turned-politician, won last week's election to become Detroit's third mayor in less than eight months.

The amazing thing is that Detroit had what was pretty much a normal election. Both candidates -- Bing, and the man he narrowly beat, Interim Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. -- are decent, sober grownups without a whiff of financial or sexual scandal.

Nobody dragged out the race card, or said his rival wasn't "black enough." Nobody accused the other of corruption. Bing said his opponent, a longtime city council member, was too much a part of the old failed system. That was a legitimate question to raise.

For his part, Cockrel legitimately questioned whether someone without a day's service in any government job could have the political savvy to be mayor of a complex, large and troubled city.

Bing was a huge star for the Detroit Pistons in the 1960s and '70s, then built up a successful steel business.

But he has never before run for office, and only decided to after the abuses of the Kwame Kilpatrick regime. Like many political neophytes, Bing, now 65, had a somewhat rocky start.

He was embarrassed by revelations that he had exaggerated his educational credentials, making up a nonexistent Master of Business Administration degree in a video posted on a National Basketball Association Web site.

Cockrel, who is 42 but seems considerably older, lost face when a deal he had put together to expand and update Cobo Center, Detroit's aging convention facility, was sabotaged by the bizarre, vituperative and erratic Monica Conyers, the acting council president.

Had the election taken place a week earlier, Cockrel would almost certainly have won. He piled up a solid margin in the absentee ballots. But public opinion swung decisively in the end.

One big factor was Freman Hendrix, another sane middle-class adult and a former deputy mayor who finished a close third in the February primary. Late last week, he endorsed Bing.

Also, a clever and little-noticed last-minute campaign tactic may have sealed the deal for the winner. Dave Bing pointed out that if he won, the voters would get the services of both men. Under the city's complex charter, he noted, Ken Cockrel, if he lost, would return to Detroit city council as its president, the job he held before the disgraced former Mayor Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to two felonies, resigned, and went to jail.

In that job, Cockrel was seen as a competent and widely respected force.

Left unsaid was something everyone knew: This would mean that Monica Conyers, a woman whose antics have embarrassed much of the city, would no longer be in a leadership position.

Turnout was small, and the result was close: Bing 49,054, Cockrel 44,770. But unlike four years ago, there was no talk of recounts or fraud. The loser, who had been sure he was going to win, conceded in good grace and pledged his help.

The next day, Mayor-elect Bing named a transition team lead by Freman Hendrix and Denise Ilitch, a prominent attorney and member of the family that owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings.

Bing, who will be sworn in as soon as the election results are certified, doesn't have an easy job. He has said that his first priority will be trying to cope with the impoverished city's massive $250 million budget deficit, presumably by laying off workers at a time when city unemployment is already 23 percent .

And he has virtually no time to get a handle on things. Thanks to Detroit's nutty city charter, Dave Bing has to face another election in only three months, and another three months after that.

The election he just won was only for the last few months of Kilpatrick's term. The next two elections are for the four-year term starting January 1, 2010.

But the day after Bing's election, an amazing thing happened. Councilman Kwame Kenyatta, who had intended to run for the full mayoral term, pulled out, saying the people were sick of endless elections. "It's time for Detroit as a whole to pull together and try to solve this difficult crisis we have," he said.

Two other contenders followed suit. Cockrel said he hadn't decided whether to run for mayor again, but was thought to be leaning against it. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent of Detroiters sensibly voted to rewrite their city's badly flawed charter.

Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for Motown after all.