Opinion

There’s an old joke that asks, what’s the difference between an optimist, a pessimist and a Detroiter?

Well, the optimist, of course, sees the glass half full; the pessimist, half empty.

And the Detroiter asks: Who stole my glass?

Years ago, I found it interesting to tell that joke to different groups, suburbanites and city dwellers, and ask what it meant.

Detroiters, most of whom were black, often said it referred to the business interests who used the city up, then took their jobs and factories and left. White suburbanites, on the other hand, would say it referred to the corrupt black politicians who fleeced their own people.

That, or to crime in general, by which they meant black crime.

I had lunch yesterday in a fairly ordinary restaurant in midtown Detroit. Whenever there is a big news event, I’m curious as to what normal people are saying about it.

Yesterday, for example, I thought people might be talking about Detroit’s bankruptcy trial. After all, a couple of miles from where I was eating, one of the city’s creditors was telling the judge he wanted the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections sold so he could get his money.

But nobody was talking about that. Instead, the few snatches of conversation I heard were all about the hacking – stealing, really – of pictures of naked celebrities, which were then uploaded where we could all see them, if we cared to. One of them was Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander, who may be the best-paid worker in the city.

Today marks a significant historical anniversary that is likely to go largely unnoticed. World War II really began 75 years ago today, when Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany for attacking Poland.

For the next six years, humans violently murdered each other at the rate of about 10 million a year. 

This anniversary is likely to get little notice because so much else is going on – and because historians are busy commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Now here is a little Michigan news story that isn’t likely to get much notice either. According to Livingston County police, a 69-year-old man was driving a pickup truck yesterday afternoon, when he passed a 43-year-old man driving a smaller vehicle.

They then both were stopped at a traffic light. The younger man got out of his car and approached the truck. And the truck driver shot him to death. Police say they were both from Howell, but didn’t know each other, that this was just a case of road rage.

Detroit’s bankruptcy has been with us so long that it is hard to believe that the actual trial is only starting today.

Technically, it is not a trial in the strict sense of the word, but something called a “plan confirmation hearing.”

But it is, in a very real sense, Detroit’s trial of the century. That’s an overused phrase, but totally appropriate here.

In fact, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, the most important figure in all of this, said it all last week: What happens here will determine “the future of the city of Detroit.”

Actually, it might be technically correct to say that this trial will determine whether the city has a future.

Well, it’s Labor Day weekend, unofficially known as the last weekend of summer, and this in itself seems horribly unfair.

Weren’t we still shoveling snow a few weeks ago?  Anyway, when it comes to things not being fair, those who work for a living know that all too well.

Especially, that is, if they have limited education or work in manufacturing jobs. I’ve just been reading a fascinating new Labor Day report issued by the Michigan League for Public Policy. It’s focus is on continuing wage disparities between men and women – the famous gender gap.

That’s an important issue, but to me it wasn’t the most significant thing in this report. What this report really does is illustrate how devastating the last 35 years have been for Michigan’s traditional blue-collar workers.

Last week, I went to see Douglas George, Canada’s top diplomat in Detroit, mostly to talk about where things stand with the New International Trade Crossing Bridge over the Detroit River.

The bridge is now almost certain to be built, but there are a few hang-ups, and one is the concerns of the residents in the Delray neighborhood where the American footprint of the bridge will land.

Those who live there want to make sure they aren’t trampled on. Now, they finally are having their voices heard, thanks in part to Detroit’s new system of electing council members by district.

Exactly a month ago, Detroit City Council was expected to approve the sale of 301 city-owned parcels of land in that neighborhood to the state of Michigan.

Michigan would then buy them with money provided by the government of Canada, and transfer the land to the new International Authority, which is to oversee bridge construction.

But the land sale was delayed.

Normally journalists never say how they vote, but I am about to violate that rule. Eight years ago, I voted to re-elect Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. I thought she was doing a good job; I still think she was less partisan and more practical than others who have held that post.

Yet I have a hard time recognizing that official in the Terri Lynn Land now running for the U.S. Senate. And yesterday, she unveiled an idea that may be one of the worst I’ve ever heard. If you ever leave your house, you know many Michigan roads are in bad shape. Gov. Rick Snyder does.

He’s been trying to get lawmakers to come up with $1.2 billion a year in new money to restore our crumbling roads and bridges. Actually, experts with the Michigan Department of Transportation, now say more like $2 billion a year is needed. The governor suggested getting this from a combination of increased registration fees and raising the state gas tax.

Okay, now, here’s a test: How many members of the state board of education can you name?  Don’t feel bad.

I can’t name them all either.

What’s more, many people don’t even realize we elect these folks, and the trustees who run our three major universities. This might not be a bad idea if the campaigns involved honest debates over education policy.

But that almost never happens.

Instead, we rely on the political parties to select nominees who will devote themselves to mastering the issues and helping run our educational institutions with integrity.

Both political parties held their state conventions last weekend. They filled out their slates of nominees, from state Supreme Court down to school board and university trustee slots.

With that the fall campaigns can fully begin in earnest.

Years ago, in a kinder and gentler era, they used to say that the public really didn’t tune in to campaigns until after the World Series.

Well, that was when the series ended the first week in October. These days it sometimes goes into November, and in Michigan the campaign for governor has been going on for more than a year.

My guess, however, is that most normal people start tuning into campaigns about Labor Day.

Here’s a tip: The media loves conflict and drama, and we tend to play up supposed splits within political parties. Sometimes these are very real, but most of the time those involved forget about their differences before the election because they hate the other party more.

We know the most important job in state government is that of governor, but the next two top jobs are far more important than we tend to realize.

Michigan’s attorney general is the top lawyer for the entire state, both for state government and the interests of all the citizens.

Meanwhile, whoever is secretary of state is responsible for pretty much everything that has to do with voting and elections – not to mention driver's licenses, automobile and other registrations, and regulating notaries in the state.

We elect these officials by a statewide vote in November. They serve four-year terms, and can be re-elected only once.

But here’s the odd thing about these jobs. We the voters have the final say in November, but have virtually no say in who the major political parties choose as their candidates.

I had a conversation yesterday with Douglas George, the Canadian government’s new consul general in Detroit.

For Canada, this area is an economic region important enough to merit a mini-embassy. Ottawa has a vast suite of offices in the Renaissance Center, and a large staff, some busy with immigration matters, and the rest primarily with economic and trade questions.

One indication of how important Canada sees Detroit is that Consul George was most recently their ambassador to Kuwait, and before that was a major trade negotiator who at various times headed both their government’s tariff and intellectual property divisions.

Here, he is responsible for trade and other issues involving a five-state area economically vital to Canada.

Both major political parties have their state conventions this week. Republicans are meeting in Novi; Democrats in Lansing.

There’s always an element of the high school reunion about these conventions; people, including the press, look forward to them in part because they get to see old friends.

However, there are also squabbles.

Most of this year’s focus has been on the Republican gathering, where Tea Party insurgents are attempting to throw Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley off the ticket.

Democrats, however, have their own struggle behind the scenes.

In case you are new to this, these conventions actually nominate most of each party’s candidates for statewide office.

By now everyone knows, or at least thinks they know, something about Michael Brown. He was, of course, the unarmed black teenager shot to death by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson 10 days ago.

His death has reopened our eternal and eternally painful dialogue about equal rights and race. But what makes me sad is that a true civil rights movement giant died in Detroit two days ago, and almost nobody even noticed.

Fifty years ago this summer, a young black woman lawyer from Detroit named Claudia House Morcom arrived in Mississippi on a mission that really meant risking her life.

She was there to fight the system of institutionalized vicious racism that prevented black Americans from voting, and reduced them to subhuman status in virtually every way.

By now coverage of last week’s Detroit area flooding has receded. For now, many of us have temporarily forgotten about how bad the potholes were last winter. We are trying, after all, to enjoy the last few days of summer.

However, roads, unlike little boys with scraped knees, don’t heal themselves.

When I was a kid I remember being told that the best thing you could do for a scraped knee was to spit on it.

This is actually not true. Most people know this by now, especially if you’ve ever taken a personal hygiene class. There are a lot more dangerous myths out there, however.

One of which is that we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure.

The fact is that in sheer dollars-and-cents terms we can’t afford not to. This weekend I talked to Jeff Cranson, the head of communications for MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation.

I asked him to help me get some hard, cold numbers about the cost of both repairing the roads and also the costs of not doing so.

They used to say that the definition of a recession was when your neighbor lost his job, and a depression was when you lost yours.

Well, after this week’s monumental Detroit-area rainstorm and flood, we now have a new definition for our dictionary of popular economics. You can say that wasteful government spending is when Washington or Lansing helps someone else.

Proper allocation of scarce resources is when they help -- you.

That may sound like a joke, but all too many people subconsciously feel that way.

You need only drive through the streets of communities like blue-collar Warren and more affluent Huntington Woods to get a sense of the scope of this week’s destruction.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts has called on Washington for assistance, saying “if the federal government can help flood-damaged communities in various countries, I think they can help flood damage in the city of Warren.”

Good luck with that.

Last winter was the snowiest and one of the coldest ever in Metropolitan Detroit. Three days ago, the area was hit by an absolutely devastating rainstorm and the following floods.

We don’t know if these events were influenced by climate change. We do know that the infrastructure, from freeway ramps to storm drains, wasn’t adequate to deal with the problems.

Our roads were in urgent need of investment before this happened, and many are in worse shape now. For years, we’ve known that the water infrastructure in southeast Michigan was in need of major upgrading.

But we haven’t done any of it.  

  This story was updated at 11:04 am (8/13/14)

As you probably know, the Michigan Legislature has been unwilling to come up with the money to fix our roads.

Michigan’s roads are in bad shape, and some in metro Detroit are going to be in worse shape after Monday night’s horrendous flooding.

That devastation is bound to raise new questions about our aging and inadequate storm drain systems, but don’t look for your lawmakers to do anything about that, either.

That’s because fixing things costs money, and too many of our lawmakers are stubbornly opposed to raising revenue for ideological reasons, or just plain lack the courage to raise taxes.

You probably know that Metro Detroit was hit by an amazing rainstorm last night that completely paralyzed traffic.

I may know this better than most people, since I spent several hours in a rather unexciting Coney Island in Warren.

Sometimes, it is probably good to be reminded that there are things we really can’t control, such as the weather. But there are other things we can do something about, such as education.

This occurred to me in the Coney at one o'clock this morning, as I was reading an order Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, issued about charter schools.

Last month, the Detroit Free Press issued a massive investigative report on the state’s charters, a study so intensive it took the newspaper eight days to publish all of it.

The newspaper series revealed that some charter schools were indeed doing well. But it also found a pattern of widespread abuses, financial irregularities, and a lack of accountability. The reporters also found schools that had been failing for years, but which nobody moved to close down.

Whatever your politics, there is both good news in yesterday’s election results, as well as some lessons to be learned. First of all, the good news: It had been widely predicted that turnout yesterday would be an all-time low. Some analysts felt that fewer than a million people might vote, which would have been the lowest in modern history.

Fewer absentee ballots than expected had been taken out, there were no contests for governor or senator, and on top of that, it rained in much of Metro Detroit.

Yet, in the end, more than 1.3 million people voted. That’s less than one-fifth of those eligible. But it could have been worse. Something else perhaps encouraging is that those who spent the most money didn’t always win.

Paul Mitchell, a rich businessman from Saginaw County, spent millions in an effort to win the Republican nomination to Congress. He lost to veteran legislator John Moolenaar in a landslide. In a similar election in Grand Rapids, another millionaire, Brian Ellis, tried to defeat maverick GOP congressman, Justin Amash. Ellis lost badly too.

Mark Schauer will become the Democratic nominee for governor next week, after Michigan’s statewide primary.

That’s because he has no opposition. He will have all the opposition he can handle in November, however. He cheerfully concedes Governor Rick Snyder will outspend him by millions. Schauer is also attempting to buck history. The last time a Republican governor was defeated in this state was in 1948.

However, when I spent some time with Schauer last week, the former Battle Creek congressman seemed sincerely upbeat and optimistic. One poll shows the two candidates exactly tied.

Others have shown Snyder leading, but usually by no more than the three to four point margin of error. And there is something ominous for the governor in all these polls: None have shown Snyder with the support of fifty or more percent of the voters.

Mike Sand didn’t technically serve in Vietnam. But he might as well have. He was stationed with a tactical fighter group in Thailand where he serviced the planes and cleaned the messes out of the cockpits of the men who fought and died in the skies.

Paul Palazzollo did serve on the ground, for perhaps the two most intense years of the war. He earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and two purple hearts. But he doesn’t talk much about what he did. Few of his buddies do either. 

They’d rather talk about their dream, which is a Memorial Park commemorating all veterans of all wars, a peaceful place to relax, have programs, and learn about our history. 

Unless you’ve been trapped in a coal mine, you may have noticed that this is an election year.

We’re less than two weeks from Michigan’s statewide primary. Once we get through that, we may have a few weeks before the airwaves are again dominated by commercials for various candidates for various offices.

I’ve been telling you about some of these, and I expect to be talking more about them before November. But I was thinking that three of the most potentially interesting leaders in the state are not on the ballot this year.

They are all women, all young, charismatic, intelligent, competent and highly educated. They also all happen to be Democrats, but that is almost a coincidence. 

Republicans have some rising women leaders as well, two of whom, Lisa Posthumus Lyons and Tonya Schuitmaker, are running for reelection to the Legislature.

 

You have to give Detroiters a lot of credit.

They voted, by overwhelming margins, to accept major cuts to their pensions. In what was most surprising, nearly 90% of city retirees also voted to give up 90% of their health care benefits. They voted to make sacrifices in their old age to give their city a chance at a future, something that we should find pretty admirable.

Now, granted, they had a gun to their heads. They were told to take this deal, or something worse would be imposed on them, but they could have raged against the machine, and didn’t.

In fact, they weren’t even obligated to approve the health care cuts, though they probably couldn’t have stopped them.

People love to bash Detroiters, but throughout the years, they have stepped up time and again, voting to tax themselves when told they had to do so to save the city; voting now to accept new painful sacrifices.

Meanwhile, four classes of the city’s hugest creditors voted no on settlement offers made to them, and so further court battles lie ahead.

All of this is bound to overshadow another story today that in the long run may be as meaningful for our future.

Westland sometimes is in national trivia contests because it was the first city ever named after a shopping mall.

Bill Wild, Westland’s mayor for the last seven years, has been much less well-known. Perhaps until recently, that is; he is now waging a serious campaign to be elected Wayne County executive. That is, to win the Democratic primary August 5, which essentially guarantees victory in the November election.

Wild may still have more money and less name recognition than his four major rivals. But he is running second in some polls, and has one powerful argument.

“I’m the only candidate who actually has executive experience, who has run both a business and a government,” he told me a couple days ago, when I went to see him at his campaign headquarters on the east side of Detroit. 

That is somewhat true.

Back in the 1960s, there was a hilarious TV sitcom called Get Smart, which portrayed the adventures of the world’s most inept spy.

Maxwell Smart was a bumbler who talked into his not-so-secret shoe telephone, carried around a device called the cone of silence, and never really had a clue as to what was going on.

Well, the Cold War is long over, but if he were around today, Smart would clearly have a future in politics.

This week, we learned that the Snyder re-election campaign has evidently revived some version of the classic department of dirty tricks, tactics made most famous by another Richard, the late President Nixon.

The Michigan Republican Party now admits it sent two staffers into a Mark Schauer fundraising event wearing high-tech hidden camera glasses.

Democrats later got possession of the disc, apparently because the Republicans clumsily lost it. My understanding is that it shows the two paid staffers chowing down on appetizers and worrying that the people at the event were on to them. They apparently made small talk with Lisa Brown, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, but not Schauer.

You might think Republicans would now be embarrassed.

But you’d be wrong.

I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for the sugar beet country of Michigan’s Thumb.

Years ago, I used to take graduate journalism students to Caro for a day where they would put out a special edition of the Tuscola County Advertiser.

The folks there were open, friendly, warm-hearted, and hard-working, but I have to say I’m ashamed of some of them today.

They are disgracing our state and reminding us of some of the ugliest chapters in American history.

Here’s why: Thousands of children and teenagers have been turning up at the United States’ southern border over the last few months. We are, if you’ve forgotten, a nation founded by refugees and which, to this very day, has remained open to those seeking political asylum.

That’s the beautiful part of our legacy.

The ugly part is that far too many of us think our ancestors were the last immigrants who should have been allowed in. That’s been reflected throughout our history in signs that said “No Irish need apply,” communities that refused to allow Jews, and the entire history of black America.

Michigan’s statewide primary is three weeks from today, and the one thing certain is that most people, even most registered voters, won’t even bother to vote.

They never do in primary elections.

Turnout seems likely to be especially dismal this year. While there are a few hot congressional and legislative races, there are no primary contests for governor or U.S. senator in either party.

That means, based on past practice, that at least 3/4 of the voters won’t show up. That’s not only disgraceful -- it also could be dangerous to our state’s economy.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville will be out of a job in less than six months, thanks to term limits.

This means his career in elected politics may be over.

And I am beginning to be sorry about that. In the last few months, Richardville, a former Monroe businessman, has evolved into a leader capable of looking beyond a narrow partisan agenda.

The roads are one example.

In past years, he virtually sneered at Governor Snyder’s call for the Legislature to appropriate billions to fix our crumbling roads. This spring, Richardville switched, came up with a creative plan to finance long-term road repair, and made a valiant, if failed effort, to get it through the Legislature.

He said this was because all he heard from his constituents was “just fix the damn roads.” That may be true, but he did see the light when other members of his caucus were bizarrely talking about trying to push through another tax cut instead.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Michigan’s bizarrely gerrymandered 14th Congressional District, drawn to pack as many Democrats as possible together.

But there has been even more strangeness in its mirror image to the left, the 11th District, similarly designed for Republicans. Shaped something like an irregular claw, the 11th begins with Birmingham and Troy in the east and arcs over to take in Milford and Novi in the west and Livonia and Canton in the South.

This was meant to be GOP territory. But it is not nearly as Republican as the 14th is Democratic. President Obama carried it once, and some think it could send a Democrat to Congress. And it hasn’t been short of controversy.

Two years ago, longtime Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s career ended after his staff filed fraudulent ballot petition signatures.

That left Republicans with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party supporting reindeer farmer. He won and is trying for a second term.

There is a long-established principle that whenever state law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law prevails. That’s been established by a long string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, plus a little event called the Civil War.  

This is why, for example, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes could rule that the pensions of Detroit city workers and retirees could be cut, even though Michigan’s state constitution says they can’t be. Federal bankruptcy law prevails.

If this weren’t the case, it would mean that anything Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court did could be overruled by any state legislature, and our nation would become no more than a collection of 50 countries united in name only.

That’s something we all learned in civics class -- which makes the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on life sentences for minors completely baffling.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. However, some politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime, claimed this decision was not retroactive.

And yesterday, in a four to three vote, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with them. The justices ruled that minors who were sentenced in Michigan to life without the possibility of parole still have no chance of a hearing – if they were sentenced before the nation’s highest court’s ruling.

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