Wisdom from a Republican governor who cared about Detroit


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — For years, Bill Milliken, possibly the Michigan governor who cared most about Detroit, tried to persuade everyone that the city and the state’s futures were tied together.

“If Detroit should fail, Michigan will be in such trouble that we will find it difficult to recover,” he said in 1981.

He fought successfully for state aid to the city when it was even more unpopular than it is today. For a while, it helped.

But that was a long time ago. Last week, I had lunch with Mr. Milliken as Gov. Rick Snyder announced an emergency manager for Detroit. “This is sad,” Michigan’s longest-serving governor said. He wondered about the mood of the people.

Though he turns 91 this month, he still follows events in the city and state. Mr. Milliken came from Traverse City, a nearly all-white area that lacks urban problems. But he grasped the significance of Detroit to the state soon after he became governor in 1969.

In one of the most remarkable odd-couple relationships in the history of politics, the Republican governor and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, an African-American Democrat, became allies in the cause of trying to help Michigan’s largest city.

Over the opposition of many fellow Republicans, Mr. Milliken got the city millions of dollars in state aid. He persuaded the National Governors Association to hold its annual conference in Detroit in 1977. “If we can’t solve our urban problems, we can’t solve the problems of America,” Mr. Milliken told his fellow governors.

“Cities have always been the center of civilization as we have known it,” he said. He predicted that cities would become either “monuments — or death mounds — of our civilization.”

He persuaded the Legislature to put together a multimillion dollar “equity package“ for the city. He argued that a large number of people across the state benefited from institutions such as Belle Isle, the Detroit Zoo, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. He thought it wasn’t fair that Detroit got stuck with the entire cost of running them.

Those efforts helped — for a while. But then the bottom fell out of Detroit’s economy. Flight to the suburbs accelerated, not only of the white population, but also of the black middle class.

City leaders balanced budgets by borrowing, which racked up debt. They agreed to pension plans and retiree health-care programs they couldn‘t fund properly.

Last week, after an agonizing review of the city’s finances, Governor Snyder, to no one’s surprise, declared a state of financial emergency and appointed an emergency manager.

When he takes over on Monday, Kevyn Orr, a 54-year-old bankruptcy lawyer from the Washington suburbs, will have more power than the mayor and city council ever did.

Three days later, he’ll get even more, when a new state law kicks in. Mr. Orr then can change contracts, sell assets, and essentially do anything he needs to do to get Detroit’s finances under control.

As Mr. Orr’s appointment was announced, Mr. Milliken asked me: “Is there a lot of anger among the people?”

I said my impression was that there was more despair than anything else. On March 1, the day the governor first declared a state of emergency in Detroit, I listened to the announcement with Sheila Cockrel, a city council member from 1994 to 2010.

“Detroiters live in fear,” she said. “They want police who will come. They want street lights that will come on. They want to feel safe, and they want a minimum level of public services.“

Reluctantly, she had concluded that an emergency manager is necessary, even though the appointment means taking most decisions away from popularly elected leaders.

She explained her thinking in a column in the Detroit Free Press on March 17. “Voting is a fundamental right, of course — but isn’t the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of equal importance?” she argued. “When local government cannot ensure basic services … when the basic right to life itself is threatened, this is a crisis that dwarfs everything else. It is time to act. To take a risk”

Other longtime Detroiters, some of them white, disagree.

The Rev. Ed Rowe, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, said the appointment of an emergency manager was “racism.”

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, called it “corporate state occupation.”

But looked at legally, it would seem to be neither of these things. Under Michigan law, cities are creations of the state. The Legislature could dissolve Detroit and combine it with Wayne County.

Mr. Orr, an African-American, says he is more than willing to work with elected officials. He told the Detroit News: “If we have good faith and people are sincere about doing something, this can easily be done in 18 months,” if not sooner.

His appointment is not open-ended. After a year and a half, a two-thirds majority of city council could vote to remove him as emergency manager.

City elections will go on as scheduled this year. Those who are elected in November eventually will be back in power.

Mr. Milliken said he wouldn’t second-guess the governor, whom he supported when Mr. Snyder ran in 2010. When today’s governor was still in college, Mr. Milliken said that Detroit is “in very deep distress today” and needed to be saved. Half a lifetime later, Mr. Snyder, Mr. Milliken, and Ms. Cockrel, who was once a Marxist, agree.

“We need to just fix this,” Ms. Cockrel said. Mr. Orr will have more power than anyone has ever had to try.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com