Good day for democracy

Oct 11, 2013

Well, it has been an odd and remarkable week in an odd and remarkable year. Large parts of the federal government are still shut down, and Detroit’s march towards bankruptcy is still proceeding, agonizingly slowly.

Yesterday, however, there was a flurry of good news, most from poor beleaguered Motown itself. The city’s thoroughly corrupt former mayor was sentenced to a record stretch in federal prison.

And last night, the Detroit Tigers staged a comeback of their own to advance to the next round of the baseball playoffs. It would be silly to read too much into that. Back in 1968, some people saw the Tigers’  come-from-behind World Series triumph as a divine sign of Detroit’s coming renaissance.

It was nothing of the kind, but when it comes to triumphs, Detroiters have learned to take what they can get.

There was another unusual development this week: Governor Rick Snyder sat for a three-hour deposition as attorneys for city workers’ unions and retirees grilled him about what he knew and when he knew it. What they were trying to do was establish that there was a conspiracy between Snyder and the Emergency Manager he named, Kevyn Orr, to declare bankruptcy as a way of getting the city to avoid its pension obligations.

Not surprisingly, a quick glance at the transcript provides no revelations. The governor said he didn’t know or couldn’t remember an average of once every three minutes. The governor or his lawyers also invoked attorney-client privilege 16 times. This is not to imply that there is any kind of cover-up.

We need to remember that the federal judge in charge of this case hasn’t even approved a bankruptcy filing yet.  Assuming he does, we don’t know which assets will be protected and which ones won‘t.  My guess is that there were no explicit conversations about bankruptcy between Snyder and Orr before he was named to the job. There didn’t have to be.

Even before the full extent of Detroit’s troubles were known, it was pretty clear that unless the tooth fairy put tens of billions under Detroit’s pillow, bankruptcy was the likely end game.

Yes, you could argue that the state or federal governments should step in and guarantee retirees’ pensions. But politically, even suggesting that would be, sadly, impossible in today’s world of record deficits and political polarization.

As in describing the Myth of Sisyphus, the stone is at the bottom of the hill, and Detroit is more or less alone.

More hard times are coming. But there is something slightly comforting in the fact that, a former mayor who showed utter contempt for the law and his people was sentenced to spend most of the rest of his life in a bleak prison cell.

And something even more refreshing in that the state’s governor had to sit there and answer snarky questions from lawyers just like any other potential defendant in a civil trial.

There’s still a lot of truth in what Gerald Ford said when Richard Nixon was thrown out of office: “Here, the people (still) rule.” We just have to keep fighting to make sure that stays the case. 

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.