Wayne county is so Democratic the only election that really counts is the August primary

Jun 26, 2014

Wayne County always has been the biggest county in Michigan, at least in terms of people, and it's the most important. Though it includes Detroit, more than a million of its residents live elsewhere, from the affluent leafy suburbs of Plymouth to gritty downriver towns like River Rouge.

They are all very different, but have two things in common. First, they elect an executive, sort of a super mayor to run things. And second, they live in a county in trouble and in deficit.

In recent years, Wayne County has been rocked by personnel scandals and an astonishing farce concerning a half-built jail abandoned after $125 million taxpayer dollars had been wasted.

Now, there are increasing worries that Wayne County, like its largest city, could be facing emergency management. That should be alarming to all of us for the same reason Detroit’s troubles are.

You can’t have a healthy state when its largest city or county is dysfunctional. Detroit’s collapse was probably unavoidable, but Wayne County’s seems to stem mainly from atrocious management.

That’s what makes this year’s race for county executive crucial, and that decision is not far away. Wayne is so Democratic that the only election that really counts is the August 5 primary.

Incredibly, incumbent Robert Ficano is trying to retain his job, though polls show him dead last. Other candidates include Westland Mayor William Wild, County Commissioner Kevin McNamara, whose father, Ed, used to be county boss, and former commissioner Phil Cavanagh, whose father was a Detroit mayor.

I spent some time yesterday with the man who is the heavy favorite, former Wayne County Sheriff and Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans, who has spent most of his life in law enforcement. Evans, a lifelong Detroiter, is a dignified man who is proud of his record of lowering crime and balancing large budgets.

To those who worry that his career has been about nothing but crime, he notes that he has spent years mainly as a chief administrator of complex systems, and making them work.

He is also a lawyer, and, though few know it, operates a western saddle horse business in South Carolina. He has had one brush with scandal. Four years ago, he was fired as Detroit police chief for “bad judgment” because he was dating a subordinate, and because of a disaster in which a little girl was killed by a police bullet in a raid being filmed by a TV reality show. 

Evans thinks he got a raw deal, but said, “When you are a leader and things go wrong, you fall on your sword.”

What he wants is to avoid the county falling further. He thinks the key is decent management, better law enforcement, and increased cooperation with the county’s 43 local governments. That includes, for example, saving money by having the county be a bulk purchaser for things everyone needs.

He told me that if elected he would order an immediate forensic audit of the county, and not rush to any decisions about the jail until the best plan could be figured out.

Evans seems to have a grasp on the county’s complexities, and a plan for bringing them under control. If he wins, we need to hope he succeeds.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.