Detroit Regional Chamber's Leadership Policy Conference
June 2005

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Christina Hill



Mackinac Diary 3: "Going to the Candidates' Debate"
(Lyric from "Mrs. Robinson," by Paul Simon, 1968)

Since first covering the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Leadership Policy Conference at Mackinac Island I've watched the attitude of the attendees about the city of Detroit go downhill as rapidly as an off-duty Jamaican bellman in a demeaning '30s costume with a perky pillbox hat careening on a bike down from the great heights of Grand Hotel to his lowly boarding house in town. Both he and Detroit's reputation have descended at a similar high speed -- with no brakes on, zooming downward recklessly and obliviously. The city is a mess, and as they chatted in casual small groups on the porch of the Grand and inside, the "buzz" from most concerned the deep hole the city's in and how the upcoming mayoral election might impact that situation. Everyone, it seemed, was on "Kwame alert," waiting for their first glimpse of the embattled giant.

The first year I reported on the conference I danced joyously to Motown on a crowded floor with Kwame Kilpatrick and almost all the members of the city council. We boogied together. Kwame had just literally been anointed mayor (I was at the ceremony: oil), and spirits were high. The second year, I focused on the excitement of the governor's push to create "Cool Cities" from tired ruins such as Detroit. Her agenda actually consisted of little more than the donning of shades to make her announcement, a savvy theatrical move combining her own iconic "Gold Marilyn" image with that of John Belushi's from "The Blues Brothers." But the pronouncement was a sham. The shades shielded an apparition, as there was and there continues to be no significant state public policy which can actually help turn Detroit around. That once hopeful initiative is mired in bureaucracy - endless meetings run by some of the most (self-admitted) uncool people in the state.

Want proof of the giant slide? (And isn't the one on Belle Isle a lot of fun?) The whole of downtown Detroit, its entire "urban core" was, on the day this conference began, placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2005 list of "America's Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places." In their words, the decision was based not only on evidence of "neglect, natural elements, vandalism, and looting all [of which] threaten downtown Detroit," but concluded that "the ultimate threat [to the city] is a series of institutional mindsets within Detroit's political and financial hierarchy."

Who, exactly, will exemplify and implement or modify those mindsets in the future was on the agenda at this year's conference in the form of a "debate" hosted by the Chamber among the candidates in the upcoming mayoral primary. That formal event, however, turned out to be fairly meaningless. The candidates were given only one minute to respond to questions posed by the moderator, Rochelle Riley, and were not allowed to address each other directly. And it has since come out that Bob Berg, one of Kilpatrick's advisors, may have had a hand in crafting the questions. It was the conclusion of those present that it had been something of a waste of everyone's time. So, I won't bother to get into details, since it is what was said informally at Mackinac that concerns me here. The Chamber's website or those of the candidates can provide policy specifics.

I overheard a loyal Democrat make a not uncommon pledge: "If Kwame gets re-elected I will definitely move out of Detroit and forsake the job of helping the city which has occupied me passionately for the last twenty-five years." The rapid flight from the city of the middle class, black, white or otherwise, is a concern impacting all aspects of policy-making which any future mayor must confront. Who, then, might win that election and how will they do it? The question about tactics on most politicos' tongues was this: how soon will Kwame play "the race card" in an attempt to avoid losing the election? Sharon McPhail, one challenger, has already been accused of doing that, by supposedly intimating that Freman Hendrix is not black enough because his father fell in love with a white Austrian woman, Freman's mother, while in the military in Europe. Some apparently think that anyone whose real first name is "Helmut" should not be the mayor of a city which is over 80% black.

My own prediction about Kwame's upcoming political campaign, as gained from various public comments he made, especially at the annual "Big Four" session which includes the heads of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties along with the mayor of Detroit, is that before he plays "the race card" he is going to test out a new tactic, i.e. complaining that he is the victim of reverse "ageism." Responding to criticism from Brooks Patterson, Kilpatrick said with bitter sarcasm and with a huge chip on his shoulder: "I was wrong, of course, because I'm the hip-hop mayor." Kilpatrick feels vilified for being only thirty-three year's old, born after the infamous riots of 1967. Unlike many of his elders, he doesn't consider age the reason he's made so many "immature" decisions that negatively impacted the city. Many disagree, and their viewpoint could be seen in several letters to the editor in the Free Press charging him with acting like a spoiled brat after he used the Mackinac conference to threaten cancellation of the fireworks if the council didn't pass his budget. (I'm going to take my ball and go home so no one can play!) Yet, this is how Kilpatrick, himself, judges his situation and his critics: "I need to overcome people's perceptions of African American people, especially young people," he stated, going on to explain: "I don't have the traditional hang-ups that most of y'all do!" He didn't explain what that meant, but noted oddly and quite beside the point I think, that in Seattle "it doesn't matter what you wear or how you look," adding, "Damn that!"

Patterson has, of course, demonstrated his own drunken immaturity, but a good relationship between Oakland County and Detroit is crucial to the city's future. Patterson accused the mayor of stupidity for not returning phone calls from a private investor itching to (according to him) finance expansion of Cobo Hall, an accusation Kilpatrick took rather strong exception to. About Kilpatrick's "y'all just don't understand me" tactic, however, I intuit it hasn't occurred to him or his campaign team that any challenger could simply say, "Ok, let's leave the generational question out of the equation completely and focus solely on your specific record and the decisions you've made while in office." Case closed, it would seem to me.

Freman Hendrix is poised to run as the "mature" candidate or the "grown-up" in the race. Not a bad position, considering Sharon McPhail has had ample opportunity over the years to make blunders of her own. She's had multiple serious fires to put out. McPhail, many think, is counting on her informal "VP," Benny Napoleon, to provide her character, and he did, by showing up for "the candidates" debate" on time, while Madame was over twenty minutes late. Hendrix, however, has his own special problems. Specifically, both Kilpatrick and the media are on his ass for whatever mistakes Dennis Archer made when Hendrix was his deputy mayor. He is going to have to defend the record of the Archer administration -- continually.

The tactic Hendrix will likely use is to distance himself at convenient times from the Archer administration while aligning himself with his old boss when it reflects positively. Certainly, even Dennis Archer (no hip-hopper he) made mistakes -- most notably ruining Rivertown, once a vibrant and vital area of downtown, by incorrectly judging it the best place for casinos - and Hendrix will have to answer for those. He seems determined, however, to assert that he is his own man. He admitted, for instance, that the Archer administration was similar to Kilpatrick's in handing out too many tax breaks to corporations that don't need them, in order to draw them to Detroit. A major item on Hendrix's agenda is to cut back on such handouts and to simultaneously cut the taxes of ordinary Detroiters across the board since the city has one of the highest tax rates in the state.

Referencing Kilpatrick's many lapses in judgment when compared to those of Archer, Hendrix asserted that he has observed at close hand that a mayor with good character uses his influence and his relationships in an ethical, rather than self-involved manner. "Use your power and position," he suggested, not to gain personal wealth, to add to your campaign coffers or to your personal charity's bottom line, but only to "help your constituents." Not to be cynical, but does this sound too good to be true?

Questioned about the placement of the whole of downtown Detroit on the National Trust's "endangered" list, Hendrix asserted that it is representative of a failure of leadership - Kilpatrick's. Quality leadership, he responded, would not have prematurely hyped the comeback of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, the Michigan Central Depot, and the expansion of Cobo Center only to eventually disappoint the citizens. (Nor allowed the shocking demolition of the Madison-Lenox Hotel without prior warning.)

Rescuing Detroit from ruin is a task so big, I believe, that none of the candidates should confidently predict success or even dare to exude confidence. They, especially, know the enormity of the problems we face. "Detroit's leaders," suggests the head of the National Trust, "can continue their demolition campaign, or they can work with developers and preservationists to breathe new life into old buildings and save the history of one of America's great cities." Said, I'm afraid, by someone obviously not intimately familiar with the city's history or with its myriad of likely unsolvable problems, a list so large I can't stomach it. Suffice it to note that General Motors, for god's sake, is tanking, their bonds rated "junk." Let's hope that old adage, "as GM goes so goes the nation," is just hyperbole.

As the voters make their decisions in the weeks to come, despite the negative "buzz" about Detroit's future I gleaned from the conference attendees, they are going to have to choose someone to believe in or at least try to believe in. Perhaps voting with their fingers crossed for good luck will help. To partially quote Paul Simon: "Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose." One can only hope that the end of his stanza, "ev'ry way you look at it you lose," will not, in the end, become Detroit's reality.

Photo Courtesy Detroit Regional Chamber

© 2002