I was mildly startled last week to learn that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing had picked up petitions he’ll need if he files to run as a candidate for another four-year term as mayor.
Now this doesn’t mean he is going to run. He has to decide, one way or another, by May 14, two weeks from today.
For months, I had assumed the mayor was not going to run. He’s had a battered and bruising four years. Thanks to Detroit’s crazy system, he had to win four elections in nine months four years ago.
He took office only months after Kwame Kilpatrick had been sent off to jail. When I first met with the mayor months later, he told me that the city budget he had inherited was largely fictitious.
It took him months to get a handle on what the deficit really was, and not much longer to see how desperate Detroit’s problems were. The city, as we now know, has $33 worth of debts to every dollar of assets. There are $14 or $15 billion worth of unfunded liabilities.
Two billion dollars of those are coming due in the next five years, and the cupboard is bare. The question is not why Detroit has an emergency manager, but why it didn’t have one long ago.
Not surprisingly, Mayor Bing, once the most popular man in the city, is not very popular these days. He has presided over a city in economic freefall, and has had to cut police when there were already far too few. For nearly a year, he struggled with the governor and a recalcitrant City Council to try and make a so-called “consent agreement” work. Realistically, it never had a chance.
Now, Bing has been smoothing a transition to a government in which all the power is held by an appointee Detroiters never even heard of two months ago, Washington-based attorney Kevyn Orr.
Whoever is elected mayor is unlikely to have any real power until next November, if then. Dave Bing resisted calls to run for mayor for years, until he felt he had no choice, after the disaster and disgrace of Kwame Kilpatrick.
After Bing was elected, he did do something critically important: He restored decency and integrity to the office of mayor. Nobody ever accused Dave Bing of any personal scandal or financial irregularity.
That‘s not to say he did everything right. His staff was chaotic. He wasn’t good at negotiating with City Council, though it is doubtful anyone could have reasoned with some of its members. But by the time Bing came in, John Maynard Keynes and Alan Greenspan together, couldn’t have stopped Detroit’s decline.
Dave Bing is politician enough to know that when things are bad, people tend to blame those in power. He’ll be 70 before his term ends, and had two bad health scares last year.
Politicians know that even if they aren’t running, it makes good sense to pretend they might, to protect what influence they might have.
But I think Bing ought to feel that he did his part. Historians today look upon another transitional figure, Gerald Ford, more favorably than when he was in office. I’d be willing to bet the same holds true for Mayor Bing.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.