What a difference a year makes: Last year at this time, there were still those who thought Detroit might be able to avoid an emergency manager, and bankruptcy was still an abstraction.
Nobody had heard the name Kevyn Orr. Former Detroit Medical Center boss Mike Duggan had moved into the city to run for mayor, but few thought he had much chance. Instead, people were still talking about whether Mayor Dave Bing could find a way to work with City Council President Charles Pugh.
Statewide, there was still widespread shock over Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature’s ramming through Right-to-Work legislation in a single day. The unions, already stunned by the voters’ emphatic refusal to protect collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution, vowed to repeal the hated law.
Today, there is remarkably little conversation about Right to Work, and virtually no talk about repealing it.
So where will Detroit — and Michigan — be a year from now?
Nobody knows. What is clear is that the political landscape today is considerably different than a year ago — especially in Michigan‘s largest city. Nearly all-black Detroit did indeed turn to Duggan, the first white mayor elected in 44 years.
The city, however, is in bankruptcy court and is being governed by an emergency manager — though one who seems to have worked out a unique power-sharing agreement with the mayor-elect.
The once-powerful Charles Pugh abandoned his job and fled the city, after being accused of improper conduct with a teenage boy. Though still in office for a few days, Mayor Bing did not run for re-election, and for months has seemed largely forgotten.
In Detroit, as 2014 dawns, everyone is focused on these key issues: How much will the bankruptcy cost the city? How long will the whole process take? Will the Detroit Institute of Arts’ treasures be sold? How much will retiree pensions be cut?
Will Kevyn Orr leave or be removed, at the end of September, the date after which City Council can fire him? If he does leave and the fiscal crisis isn’t resolved, might the governor name Mayor Duggan his replacement as Emergency Manager?
Most importantly, how does the city flourish — or even stay solvent — once the bankruptcy process is over?
Statewide, politics are never far from the surface, and this is a election year. Most of the attention is on the governor’s race, where Snyder is plainly running for re-election.
Democrats months ago settled on a candidate to replace him: Former state senator and one-term congressman Mark Schauer, from Battle Creek. Ironically, that’s also Snyder’s home town, though the 52-year-old Democrat wasn’t born there, and never knew the 55-year-old governor when they were youngsters.
Though there is vast anger against the governor in many circles, defeating him in November is likely to be an uphill battle.
Since the present state constitution was enacted half a century ago, no Michigan governor has ever lost a bid for a second term. (Former Gov. James Blanchard did narrowly lose a third-term bid in 1990, but governors are now limited to only two terms.)
Polls show a potentially close race now, but even Democrats acknowledge that they are apt to be heavily outspent.
Mark Schauer is a likeable man, a former community organizer and state legislator with no hint of scandal.
But he is neither a compelling speaker nor a charismatic personality. In fairness, neither is Rick Snyder, whose voice has been compared to Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog.
Democrats are widely expected to gain two or three seats in the state senate, where Republicans have a 26-12 advantage. But even they don’t see any chance of winning control next year. So far, neither Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson nor Attorney General Bill Schuette seem in serious danger.
Perhaps the Democrats’ best shot at a statewide victory is for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Carl Levin. Here, too, both parties’ candidates seemed set a year before the primary.
Democrat Gary Peters, a suburban Detroit congressman, is thought to have an edge over former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Ms. Land was perceived as a moderate when she was on office (2003-2011) and was very popular statewide.
This much, however, is for sure: For Michigan, this is an election year when many voters feel there is more at stake than usual. And Detroit is navigating uncharted waters.
Where the city and the state will be — financially, structurally, psychologically — a year from now, nobody can yet say.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.