Cronyism and Wayne County

Nov 1, 2011

There’s a wonderful scene in Oliver Stone’s excellent movie Nixon, where the actors playing the president’s two heavies, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, are watching their boss publicly fire an aide as the Watergate scandal begins to unravel.

The cadaverous James Woods, who plays Bob Haldeman, turns to his sidekick. “And John, you do know we‘re next, right?” he says.

They, indeed, were next, in the movie and real life. But despite throwing many people overboard, Nixon was, in the end, unable to save himself. Today’s question: Will that be the case for Wayne County Chief Executive Bob Ficano?

Wayne County and Detroit have been rocked this year by two unusual scandals, each involving a charismatic, highly visible woman who eventually was fired to protect her boss.

Don’t get me wrong. None of this had anything to do with  romance, but with politics as usual. In Detroit this summer, media attention suddenly focused on Karen Dumas, the mayor’s hard-charging and highly visible communications chief.

A variety of sources, mostly anonymous, alleged that Dumas had too much influence. That she was arrogant and abrasive and responsible for the administration’s frequent personnel shakeups. After at first ineptly defending her, the mayor threw her under the bus. This seemed to buy his administration some time. The microscopic scrutiny stopped, and city hall has more or less been ignored by the press, at least for the time being.

However, it is not clear what happens next in Wayne County, where yesterday, the board of the Airport Authority fired Turkia Awada Mullin, who was running Detroit Metro and who has been at the center of a controversy involving the way the county does business.

The Mullin controversy is far more serious than the flap over Detroit’s press secretary. This is a woman who went from one highly paid county job to another, and when she got a promotion, got a two hundred thousand dollar good bye kiss from a county with staggering rates of poverty. Asked about this, she arrogantly said, “I’m worth it,“ which indicates that she didn’t pass Public Relations 101. In the end, she was forced to give back the money and then lost her job anyway. But unlike Karen Dumas, she isn’t going gently into that good night. She plans to sue the county for $700,000.

And a lot of people are worried about what else might come to light. To an extent, her high visibility made her radioactive. There may have been some sexism involved. As veteran Detroit News columnist Laura Berman observes, “Mullin didn’t get her job because of her pretty face, but she lost the public relations wars and now her job at least partly because of it.”

Mullin reminded me of the old New York political boss who once said, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” She didn’t invent the crony culture that has long been the way Michigan’s largest county does business. But her undoing has exposed it. The question is whether we will lose interest, now that we’ve had our ritual sacrifice -- or whether we will demand real change? You don‘t have to be a Tea Partier to think that the way governments do business needs to change, now that the days of easy money are gone.