Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 28, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: For Detroit, it's all about the unknown

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
Columnist

---- — DETROIT — Think about this: Detroit is a city in which all power is currently held by an all-powerful emergency manager, a bankruptcy lawyer from Maryland appointed by Michigan‘s governor.

That man, Kevyn Orr, now wants to wrestle the city into federal court, where he and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes will make the major decisions that will determine the city’s future. Not only were neither of those two men elected, most Detroiters never heard of either of them until recently.

The city’s elected leaders are still in place, but have no power.

Mayor Dave Bing and the six remaining council members have no more than a figurehead, or at best an advisory status. (Since the emergency manager was named in March, one council member quit, a second resigned to work for Orr, and City Council President Charles Pugh just disappeared, period.) The mayor and those on the job still get salaries, but only because Orr decided to pay them.

Nobody knows when things will return to normal.

So given all this, who would want to be the next mayor of Detroit? Believe it or not, lots of people.

When Detroit voters go to the polls in the Aug. 6 primary, they’ll see 14 names on the ballot -- and the man who many think most likely to be the city’s next mayor isn’t on the ballot at all.

Mike Duggan, a 55-year-old former Wayne County political boss, prosecutor and head of the Detroit Medical Center, was tossed off the ballot on a technicality last month. Now, he is waging a furious and expensive write-in campaign. Though winning a write-in is a challenge, two major polls indicate he has a shot at doing it. Most experts think Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is certain to get one runoff slot.

What Duggan aims to do is qualify for the second. Whether he can get there is problematic. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office says a write-in vote doesn’t have to spell the candidate’s name correctly, but “voter intent” has to be clear.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers has the final say on disputed votes, and if the contest is close, one could even envision a “nightmare scenario” in which votes are challenged in what could look like a flashback to the infamous 2000 Florida recount.

Nevertheless, two candidates will eventually face off on Nov. 5, and the winner will take office on New Year’s Day.

And what will the new mayor move to do then? Sadly, not much.

The Emergency Manager will be in command until at least October, 2014. After that, he could be fired, and normal democracy reinstated, if at least six of the nine council members who will be elected this November decide to do that.

Yet even then, any mayor is apt to have limited powers. Nobody knows how long the bankruptcy process will take. Orr thinks it could be completed in a little over a year, though some think it could take much longer than that.

Eventually, Detroit will emerge from bankruptcy. But what then? How will whomever is running this once-mighty metropolis point his battered city on the path to a brighter future?

Nobody knows. That may be what the fall campaign should be about.

Detroit will presumably emerge from bankruptcy shorn of most or all of the staggering $19 billion in debt the city owes. Yet what does it do next?

The city’s plight is often compared to that of what was, for decades, its biggest company - General Motors. The automaker went through its own near-death experience in 2009. Today, it is lean, healthy and roaring back, posting a $4.9 billion profit last year. But there is one major difference between GM and the City of Detroit. When the automaker emerged from bankruptcy, it had something to sell that millions wanted to buy: vehicles.

Post-bankruptcy Detroit may be a city with a clean balance sheet, but it will also be a city with tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, a population consisting largely of the poor and undereducated, and a dysfunctional school system.

Depending on how bankruptcy plays out, Detroit may have fewer assets even than it does now, and it is even possible that the iconic Detroit Institute of Arts could be forced to sell its treasures. The city that emerges from bankruptcy is likely to be a city that will have most or all of the same problems it had before. What does seem clear is that it will also be totally unable to borrow money.

Some brave souls -- a mayor and nine city council members -- will eventually be left on their own, in charge of keeping Detroit solvent and leading it to a prosperous future. They are going to have to be brave, and wise, souls indeed.

***

Farewell to Helen Thomas: The little “lady in red” who for decades ended every White House press conference with “Thank you, Mr. President” died July 20, just short of 93. Her career ended sadly three years ago, when she said several mean-spirited and nasty things about Jews, the “Zionist lobby” and Israel.

Yet she deserves to be remembered as a hard-working reporter who shattered glass ceilings for women journalists, who played things straight down the middle for more than half a century as a wire service reporter, and who was always a proud Detroiter.