Politics

05.15.13

Democracy on Hold as Dave Bing Prepares to Leave Detroit’s City Hall

After inheriting a “hell hole,” and then having the state take control of its finances, Dave Bing has had enough, reports Jay Scott Smith.

After a tumultuous four years overseeing a city long riddled with blight, corruption, crime, and historic financial issues, mayor Dave Bing has had enough, telling a stunned audience at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History Tuesday that he’d leave when his term ends in December.

The 69-year-old Bing, a hall-of-fame NBA player who spent most of his career with the Pistons and then was a successful businessman in Detroit had never run for office before narrowly winning the 2009 race to replace Kwame Kilpatrick, who in less than a term in office had gone from rising Democratic star to scandal-embroiled mayor to convicted felon. After winning a full term the same year, Bing tried to turn around a city that has been losing population and sinking into an ever-deeper economic hole for decades, with a City Council resistant to his plans for radical changes to save Detroit and the looming prospect of the Republican governor appointing an emergency economic manager who would effectively take control of the city’s finances from its elected officials. When Governor Rick Snyder in March ended months of deliberation by appointing Kevyn Orr emergency manager, with sweeping powers to modify contracts and sell city assets, Bing, whose frustrations had been mounting, had enough.

In an interview with this reporter last summer, Bing said that he’d inherited a “hell hole” from Kilpatrick. Over the past few days and again during his speech on Tuesday, he came as close to lashing out as his detractors as he ever has publicly, targeting everyone from the Council to Snyder to residents and the media.

“We could accomplish so much more if we just work together,” Bing said Tuesday. “Our citizens need the City Council to help move the city forward, not become a stumbling block to progress. They need to be held accountable.” Taking a swipe at Gov. Snyder, Bing added that he has “been a team player” all of his life and sardonically asked whether the emergency manager’s appointment shows “how the state defines partnership.”

“The city was in pain when we came on board and it pained me to see it in this condition,” Bing said before reaching under the podium and pulling out a stack of petitions. “I want to thank the nearly 2,000 citizens who signed petitions in support of placing my name on the ballot. I’m announcing today that I’ve decided not to seek another term as mayor of Detroit.”

On Monday, Bing went after the media that he said should stop “trashing the city” and ignore some of what he called its “warts.” “Every time somebody comes to our city—especially from the outside—they go into the same neighborhoods,” said Bing, who has trumpeted that his administration has torn down nearly 10,000 abandoned structures during his tenure. “They look at all the decrepit homes. They don’t go to the good neighborhoods.”

Those “warts,” though, include as many as 80,000 abandoned homes and at least 60 abandoned buildings downtown. Many of the “bad” neighborhoods have been dens for drug use, sexual assaults, murders, and kidnappings. A large number of them surround many of the city’s public schools. Even the “good” neighborhoods are pocked with abandoned homes, and the city’s midtown and downtown are pocked with abandoned structures, some in the shadows of hotels and stadiums.

Bing’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a second term came less than 48 hours after the first financial report from Orr was released, offering a sobering look at a city decimated by overspending, corruption, and incompetence, all exacerbated by a declining population and its vast 142-square-mile footprint. The city’s deficit, said Orr—a bankruptcy expert who represented Chrysler in its 2009 filing—could be as much as $600 million and its long-outstanding debts more than $16 billion. On Monday, he warned that the city would be broke by the end of the fiscal year in July, and gave himself six weeks to determine whether it is headed toward Chapter 9 bankruptcy. It would be by far the largest American city ever to go bankrupt.

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Detroit Mayor Dave Bing holds up signature sheets while speaking during a news conference in Detroit, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Bing announced he won't seek a second term as leader of the financially troubled city, which recently became the largest in the country placed under state oversight. (Paul Sancya/AP)

“What stands out to me is 40 years of dropping demographics, of reducing revenues—you don’t get the magnitude of neighborhood blight we have overnight—of no one having a plan or solution for that, of inviting, quite frankly, some class of residents to leave,” Orr told a pool of reporters on Monday afternoon.

“Without a vision for what you want your city to be three, five, 10, 20, 30 years out, the totality of those circumstances drove us here.”

As the city has declined, many who remained have given up on its politics., and Bing in recent days called out city residents for failing to show up at the polls.  “In our last mayoral and city council election, voter turnout in the city of Detroit was less than 17 percent,” Bing said. “Since many people gave their lives to protect our right to vote, we need more of our citizens to take part in the democratic process.”

But whoever replaces him will have little power for at least a year.  Orr’s appointment is slated to last until at least late 2014 before he goes up for review, at which time a new city council will have to make a decision on his progress.

“This is a tough, tough situation that I have endured for the past four years,” Bing told me on Monday. “As I look at over the next four years and ask are there going to be any changes, we’ve put a lot of things in place.”

“I understand that Kevyn is the guy that’s in charge today,” Bing added with a smile of relief. “Instead of worrying about my ego and worrying about whether he’s usurping my authority, I’m not hung up on that at all. I came into this position to help bring this city back. If he can help from his position, then I’m all for it.”