Opinion

My guess is that Dave Woodward and his fellow Democrats are a mix of frustrated, defiant, and happy today, in about that order.

Here’s why.

We’re talking about the minimum-wage deal, in which both houses of the Legislature and the governor yesterday enacted and signed a minimum-wage bill with what, in political terms, was the speed of light.

Yes, the same gang that hasn’t been able to get any new road funding in three years passed a minimum-wage bill in less than a day.

Woodward, a former chair of the Oakland County Democrats, has spent the last few months knocking himself out as head of Raise Michigan, the group collecting signatures to get a minimum-wage hike on the ballot.

When it comes to Detroit, this actually may be one of the most exciting weeks since Henry Ford began paying people $5 a day a century ago.

Detroit is a mess. A blighted, bankrupt troubled mess. Everyone knows and has known that for a long time.

The good news is that there are now plans in motion by people in power to do something about it.  

Today, the result of a massive, detailed survey of the city, something never before attempted, is being released to the public – together with a concrete plan to clean it up.

They are calling it “Every Neighborhood Has a Future, and it Doesn’t Include Blight.”

This isn’t being unveiled by a couple of urban studies professors or second-string bureaucrats.

Mayor Mike Duggan and emergency manager Kevyn Orr are solidly behind this plan – as are three of the most-respected people in the city:

  • Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who has been buying an astonishing amount of land downtown;
  • The dignified and deeply respected Glenda Price, who turned around Marygrove College, heads a foundation for Detroit Public Schools, and serves on a million boards;
  • Plus Linda Smith, who runs the highly-regarded civic group U-Snap-Bac.

Those three headed a blight removal task force who, as part of their work, presided over a project to document, categorize, and map every parcel of land in Detroit – every one.

Then they came up with a concrete and tangible plan to do something about it.

Last week it seemed anything but certain that the package of bills authorizing state money for the Detroit “grand bargain” would pass.

And nobody expected they would pass by margins as high, in one case, as 105 to 5.

Which just shows once again that real life is usually stranger than fiction.

There is lingering bitterness over one bill, however: the one that prevents the Detroit Institute of Arts from asking for a renewal of its millage when it expires.

There was a time when it wasn’t unusual for university presidents to stay in their jobs for twenty years or more. These days, however, that seldom happens. The average college or university president lasts barely seven years.

It actually may be a wonder that any last that long, given the intensity of issues from rising costs to affirmative action to athletics. Not to mention that everything happens these days in the pressure cooker and under the microscope of the 24-hour news cycle.

Two of Michigan’s three major universities have new presidents; Wayne State’s Roy Wilson has been on the job less than a year. The University of Michigan’s Mark Schlissel takes office this summer. But in January, Lou Anna Simon will celebrate ten years as president of Michigan State University.

In fact, to say she’s been on the job for a decade severely understates her involvement with the institution. She’s been there ever since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970.

Since then, she has held a wide variety of academic and administrative jobs, which is not to say she is set in her ways. I had a chance to have a long conversation with her this week.

She told me tradition is important, but added, “If you don’t have leadership committed to change, but only to defending the status quo, you have the wrong leadership.”

Michigan State is often referred to as the nation’s pioneer land grant university, and that is more than a piece of historical trivia. The school was founded with the idea that it would study and seek out knowledge and find a way of making it practical and relevant for the people of Michigan. They still take that mission seriously.

I think the low point in my faith in democracy came late this winter, soon after I had lost one tire to a pothole. I got home after nearly losing another on the lunar surface of a suburban Detroit mile road, just in time to hear a state senator claiming we needed another tax cut.

Well, I thought, I am now living in a Third World country. But guess what? That senator heard from his constituents, big-time. Before long, he was retreating from his tax-cut talk, legislative tail between his legs. Why?

To quote the leader of his caucus, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville R- Monroe, “I’ve heard the message loud and clear that the roads are messed up, and I think the most common phrase I’m hearing from back home is 'just fix the damn roads.'"

Here’s a three-part prediction for you:  First, the minimum wage bill passed by the Michigan Senate will never become law – not in anything like the way it looks now.

Second, there will be a minimum wage proposal on the ballot, though no one can say if it will pass and what happens if it does.

And finally, what looked like a triumph for the Republicans a few days ago could well backfire – and end up driving angry Democratic voters to the polls.

Here’s what’s going on. As you probably know, a group called Raise Michigan has been collecting signatures to put a proposal on the ballot that would gradually raise the minimum wage from the current $7.40 an hour to $10.10.

So far as I can tell, it looks like they will have more than enough. Business interests don’t like this, of course; they never like being told they have to pay their workers more money. And what they really don’t like is that this bill would also gradually make the minimum wage for tipped workers, like restaurant servers, equal with everyone else.

For the past year, for the first time in decades, people in the suburbs, in Lansing, and across America are thinking about Detroit.

Everybody has had to face that Detroit is broken, hopelessly in debt, largely a shattered ruin, and that city services, the schools and so much else doesn’t work.

For many years, everyone knew things were bad, but nobody did much about it.

The political class running the city denied the extent of the problem and did not welcome outside intervention. The rest of us mostly said, fine.

Now, however, things are very different.

There are several things to note about the astonishing developments yesterday in the battle over the minimum wage. Most importantly, it is important to remember that it ain’t over till it’s over.

The state Senate took everyone by surprise yesterday when Republicans agreed to gradually raise the minimum wage by nearly$2 an hour and partly index it to the inflation rate.

Barely a week ago, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was adamantly claiming he wanted absolutely no rise in the present state minimum wage of $7.40 an hour.

Then, he introduced a bill that would have increased it to by 75 cents an hour, but one that contained a poison pill. His bill would have not only changed the rate, but would have repealed and replaced the old statute.

There’s a reason for that. There’s petition drive to change the old law and raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour.

Richardville reasoned this would short-circuit the petition drive. You can’t amend a law that doesn’t exist. But there were dangers for Republicans in that approach, too. It is pretty clear there is considerable sentiment for raising the minimum wage.

When it comes to education, there are two things on which pretty much everyone agrees. We need more of it, and we need to make it more affordable.

But there’s a third thing, too. We need to make it relevant.

Learning for learning’s sake is a good and sacred thing, but today’s generation also needs education that will lead to jobs, in most cases, sooner rather than later.

For years, I’ve been intrigued by a place that seems to have gotten something very right: Macomb Community College.

There’s an old saying that conservative lawmakers are for local control, except when they’re not.

Meaning, whenever local units of government want to do something that they don’t like.

Now, we’ve learned that Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, believes in democracy, except when he doesn’t.

In the past, Richardville has staunchly supported Michigan voters’ decisions to outlaw gay marriage and affirmative action.

But he doesn’t want to allow voters to vote to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

It now seems likely that supporters of the higher minimum will collect enough signatures to put a proposition doing so on the November ballot.

Now, it would be one thing to campaign against this amendment, and encourage people to vote it down.

That would be perfectly legitimate, regardless of whether you agree.

Two years ago, voters in a suburban Detroit congressional district were stunned to learn that their congressman, Thaddeus McCotter, had failed to qualify for the primary election ballot.

Anyone running for Congress needs to submit 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

It turned out his staff had illegally and clumsily photocopied old petition signatures, instead of collecting new ones. McCotter not only retired, but abruptly quit before his term ended.

That left just one name on the GOP primary ballot: Kerry Bentivolio, known informally as “Krazy Kerry,” a reindeer farmer, Santa Claus impersonator, and failed high school teacher.

Bentivolio is now a congressman, and establishment Republicans are spending millions to try and dislodge him in this August’s primary.

Now it seems something similar has happened to John Conyers, a Democrat who has represented Detroit in Congress for half a century. Most of the signatures he submitted seem to have been collected by circulators who weren’t registered to vote.

One has a criminal record and is a wanted fugitive. It seems very likely that Conyers will not be on the ballot this year.

If so, it's possible that the only name on the Democratic primary ballot will be that of The Rev. Horace Sheffield, a longtime Detroit clergyman with a reputation of his own. Sheffield got his picture in the papers twice in February. Once when he announced for Congress, and once when he was booked on domestic violence charges.

Every society functions at least partly on a set of myths. Sometimes these have been highly destructive. For example, believing you are the master race and everyone else deserves to be slaves has potentially destructive consequences.

America has largely operated on good myths, good because most of them had some grain of truth.

For example, the theories that all men are created equal, or that anyone can become rich or succeed at any occupation they choose. Those ideas have, by and large, encouraged hard work and a belief in the future.

Most of us resent freeloaders – people who take and take, but don’t give back. People who never pick up the check at a restaurant. Everyone knows someone like that.

Well, today I want to introduce you to a new one.

This time it is a country, not a person, and she is refusing to pay not just her fair share, but any part of a mutually beneficial business proposition essential for Michigan’s future.

Worse, she is exploiting her closest ally and best friend.

The name of our welfare cheat, who happens to be rather rich herself, is the United States of America. And who she is exploiting is Canada. And on top of all that, we are doing so in a way intensely humiliating to ourselves.

Let me explain.

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the so-called "Grand Bargain," which would save both the Detroit Institute of Arts and shore up the city’s pension funds enough to minimize the cuts.

Doing that would require hundreds of millions in funds from three sources:

  • A coalition of private foundations
  • supporters of the DIA itself
  • state government

The first two pots of money, from museum backers and the foundations, have been raised or will be.

That leaves the state’s share, which has usually been put at $350 million. Gov. Rick Snyder is supporting this. He believes, correctly, that it makes sense for the entire state.

But his Republican colleagues who control the Legislature aren’t so sure.

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger says he won’t even consider letting this come up for a vote, unless the city unions are willing to kick in some money as well.

Bolger, who is from Marshall, clearly feels no connection to or love for Detroit, and less for unions.

It isn’t clear if the city’s battered unions even have that kind of cash. What is clear to Republicans, of course, is that every dollar the unions have to give up is one less dollar they can conceivably donate to political campaigns.

If you like irony, think about this. Sixty years ago, the president of General Motors was nominated to be Secretary of Defense.

Today, we remember only one thing about “Engine Charlie” Wilson – his famous quote: “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”  Today, that would almost certainly have sunk his nomination.

Back then, it caused scarcely a ripple. Wilson died in 1961, and I wonder what he would say if he came back to life and learned that Chrysler was owned by the Italians, Ford was about to have a Jewish CEO and his beloved GM had not only gone bankrupt, it was now a much smaller company run by a woman. Oh yes, and by the way – the president of the United States is black.

Last week at noon I snuck over to a little restaurant near Detroit’s Eastern Market that usually isn't very crowded.

The place isn’t fine dining, but it’s quiet, I like their food, and they left me alone for a romantic hour-long interval with coffee and a bunch of term papers on the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

My server is usually a woman I’ll call Stephanie, who is sweet, efficient and a trifle careworn. I think she is in her mid-40s, I know she has kids, and she has worked there for 18 years. 

My bill was about $9, and I left Stephanie$3, which sounds generous – after all, that’s more than the 15 to 20% they say you are supposed to tip. But afterwards I realized what I gave her was outrageously cheap.

I know the restaurant, and Stephanie is almost certainly being paid the minimum wage of $2.65 an hour. She had no more than three tables while I was there. 

One of the most significant sites in the history of Detroit – and the modern world – has also been one of the most sadly neglected.

Not only that, it isn’t even in Detroit.

Every day, thousands of commuters drive by an old red-brick building on Woodward Avenue in the little enclave city of Highland Park.

You need to know three things about Highland Park. It is a separate city embedded in northern Detroit. Economically, it is even worse off.

But it was the place where the twentieth century was created – in this old red brick building, and in the remnants of a giant factory behind it. A hundred years ago, this sturdy, Albert Kahn structure was the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company.

Millions and millions of Model Ts, the most important car ever created, rolled off assembly lines here, before Ford moved to the Rouge. It was here where cars were made affordable for everyone, and where the world was put on wheels.

Last weekend I crashed the Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, the party’s traditional tribal reunion and fundraising event. Bill Clinton was the main speaker, and as usual, he delivered a riveting, hour-long tour de force. But what surprised me was the speech made by the designated Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer.

Schauer is usually thought of as a good and decent man who nobody would call a spellbinding speaker. But he gave a strong, punchy and energetic speech in Detroit’s Cobo Hall Saturday night. He naturally attacked Snyder’s record. But Schauer mainly focused on his own program, what he would do if elected. And it was clear what the former congressman’s main themes will be.

Remember back to the nightmare election of 2000, when for five weeks after the voting, we did not know who our next president would be?

The culprit, of course was Florida.

You’ve probably seen those photos of confused poll workers trying to recount the ballots, holding defective punch cards up to the light and squinting to see if the holes were punched through.

Well, back then I felt sort of smug. Michigan, I believed, had no real problems as far as elections were concerned.  Our state cleaned up a lot of irregularities after a problem with a couple close gubernatorial elections in the 1950s. We avoided punch cards after a disastrous experiment in Detroit in 1970.

I flew to Florida early last month, and while in the air re-read from cover to cover the one indispensable book that explains as nothing else what really happened to Detroit.

Eighteen years ago, University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue published a volume mind-blowing in its brilliance of analysis and depth of research.

The title, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” is somewhat misleading.

This really is the book on how Detroit was destroyed - and destroyed itself - over the last 70 years.

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