Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 5, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: History may treat Bing better than polls

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — The last time I talked at length to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, late last summer, he said two things that convinced me he wasn’t going to run for re-election this year.

After talking at length about the city’s dreary financial picture and his struggles with an often irrational the City Council, I asked him where he liked to go out to eat. “Troy,” he said, without a moment‘s hesitation. “There are so many good places to eat in Troy.”

Trouble is, Troy is not part of Detroit; it is a mostly affluent, largely white suburb miles from the city limits. Eventually, noticing an aide staring at him, he added “oh, there’s that good new place on Livernois,” which is in Detroit. But he couldn’t remember its name.

The mayor is also a dapper dresser, known for his perfectly fitting suits. I wondered where he got them. “Windsor,“ he said firmly. “The only place to go for suits is Windsor.””

When a mayor of Detroit is happy to tell a reporter that he eats in the suburbs and buys his clothes in another country, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to conclude that he isn’t running.

So I was mildly surprised when the mayor picked up petitions last week that he’ll file if he does decide to run.

Taking out the petitions doesn’t mean anything in itself. Bing has until May 14 to decidw whether or not he will be a candidate for another four-year term.

But I still think the odds are that he won’t run. Nor, frankly, should he.

Not because he has done a terrible job. Dave Bing will be remembered as a man who brought decency, honesty and integrity to the office, after the sewer that it became under the vulgar and corrupt administration of Kwame Kilpatrick.

There’s never been any hint of personal or financial scandal in the Bing administration. Not even his worst enemy ever charged him with taking a dime. In fact, he didn’t even take a salary at first. However, when times are bad, citizens tend to blame those in power. Today, Detroit is under the rule of an unelected emergency manager, Washington, D.C. bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr,.

Mayor Bing has worked gallantly to help smooth the transition since the manager took over March 25. But the fact remains that any mayor will be largely a figurehead until at least October 2014, when the manager could be removed by a two-thirds city council vote.

Polls show that Bing, for many years the most popular figure in Detroit, is now intensely unpopular. Even before the governor sent in an emergency manager, Bing had to cut police jobs when the city already had too few cops to do the job.

City workers’ salaries have been slashed, pensions threatened, Demographer Kurt Metzger of Data Driven Detroit says the city, which once had close to 2 million people, continues to hemorrhage residents; it may have fewer than 690,000 now.

Little or none of this is Bing’s fault. Since 2004, the city has only been able to balance its budget by more borrowing. Now, the ticket window is closed. The city not only has a current deficit of more than $325 million, it has long-term, unfunded liabilities, such as pensions, of something close to $15 billion.

Accountants say $1.9 billion of this will come due within the next five years, and the city has no ability to pay. It’s a good guess that Kevyn Orr is going to spend a lot of time trying to renegotiate as much of this debt as possible. Retirees are almost certain to get hurt.

Why would Dave Bing want more of this?

One poll showed that if he did run, he would poll no more than 9 percent of the vote in the August primary, far behind frontrunners Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County Sheriff, and Mike Duggan, a political fixer and white suburbanite who moved into Detroit recently.

Ironically, for years, Bing fought hard against running for mayor, telling everybody from business friends to Mayor Coleman Young he wasn’t interested. He had been a Motown hero since he was a Hall of Fame-bound point guard for the Detroit Pistons, in years when he was the only reason to cheer for them.

Afterwards he founded a business (Bing Steel) and moved to the suburbs. Finally, after Kilpatrick had trashed the city, he agreed to run. Thanks to a Detroit’s odd election law, he had to run in four separate races for mayor over nine months in 2009.

Bing won them all. That may have been the high point of his administration. Since then, he has had nothing but stress.

Last year, he had two major health scares, including acute blood clots in both lungs. He will turn 70 in November.

Why would he want more of this? Years ago, Michigan produced another interim political leader who, like Bing, came to power after a deeply corrupt administration, and was also an honest and decent man.

His name was Gerald Ford. His reputation is much higher today than it was when he was in office, and his most controversial decision - the pardon of Richard Nixon - is now widely accepted.

My guess is that history will also treat Bing more kindly than the polls do today. Especially if he gracefully steps aside.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, 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.