The job of mayor of Detroit no longer seems to suit Bing


DETROIT — The last time I talked at length with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, late last summer, he said two things that convinced me he wasn’t going to run for re-election this year.

After we talked about the city’s dreary financial picture and his struggles with an often-irrational City Council, I asked him where he liked to go out to eat. “Troy,” he said, without a moment‘s hesitation. “There are so many good places to eat in Troy.”

Trouble is, Troy is not part of Detroit. It is a mostly affluent, largely white suburb miles from the city. Eventually, noticing an aide staring at him, he added: “Oh, there’s that good new place on Livernois,” which is in Detroit. But he couldn’t remember its name.

The mayor is also a dapper dresser, known for his perfectly fitting suits. I asked where he got them. “Windsor,“ he said firmly. “The only place to go for suits is Windsor.”

When a mayor of Detroit is happy to tell a reporter that he eats in the suburbs and buys his clothes in another country, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to conclude that he isn’t running for re-election.

So I was mildly surprised when the mayor picked up petitions last week that he’ll file if he does decide to run.

Taking out the petitions doesn’t mean anything in itself, except that he is hedging his bets. Mayor Bing has until May 14 to decide whether he will be a candidate for another four-year term.

But I still think the odds are that he won’t run. Nor, frankly, should he.

Not because he has done a terrible job. Mr. Bing will be remembered as a man who brought decency, honesty, and integrity back to the office, after the sewer that it became under the vulgar and corrupt administration of Kwame Kilpatrick.

There’s never been a hint of personal or financial scandal in the Bing administration. Not even his worst enemy ever charged him with taking a dime. In fact, he didn’t even take a salary at first.

However, when times are bad, residents tend to blame those in power. Today, Detroit is under the rule of an unelected emergency manager, Washington bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr, who has more power than any Detroit mayor has ever had.

Mayor Bing has worked gallantly to help smooth the transition since the manager took over March 25. But any mayor largely will be a figurehead until at least October, 2014, when the manager could be removed by a two-thirds vote of City Council.

Polls show that Mayor Bing, for many years the most popular figure in Detroit, is intensely unpopular today. Even before Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sent in an emergency manager, Mayor Bing had to cut police jobs when the city already had too few cops to do the job.

City workers’ salaries have been slashed and pensions are threatened. Fewer than half of Detroit’s adults are in the labor force, let alone working. Most Detroiters are poor and undereducated. Nothing seems to work, including most of the street lights.

Little or none of this is Dave Bing’s fault. Since 2004, the city has balanced its budget only by more borrowing.

The city not only has a current deficit of more than $325 million, but it also has long-term, unfunded liabilities, such as pensions, of close to $15 billion. Accountants say $1.9 billion of this amount will come due within the next five years, and the city has no ability to pay.

It’s a good guess that Mr. Orr is going to spend a lot of time trying to renegotiate as much of this debt as possible. Retirees are almost certain to get hurt.

Why would Mr. Bing want more of this?

One poll showed that if he did run, he would receive no more than 9 percent of the vote in the August primary, far behind front-runners Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County sheriff, and Mike Duggan, a political fixer and white suburbanite who moved into Detroit recently.

For years, Mr. Bing fought hard against running for mayor, telling everybody from business friends to former Mayor Coleman Young he wasn’t interested. He had been a Motown hero since he was a Hall of Fame-bound point guard for the Detroit Pistons, in years when he was sometimes the only reason to cheer for the NBA team.

Afterward, he founded a business, Bing Steel, and moved to the suburbs. Finally, after Kilpatrick had trashed the city, Mr. Bing agreed to run. Thanks to Detroit’s odd election law, he had to run in four separate races for mayor over nine months in 2009.

Mr. Bing won them all. That may have been the high point of his administration. Since then, he has had nothing but stress.

Last year, he had two major health scares, including acute blood clots in both lungs. He will turn 70 in November.

Years ago, Michigan produced another interim political leader who, like Mr. Bing, came to power after a deeply corrupt administration. This leader also was an honest and decent man.

His name was Gerald Ford. His reputation is much higher today than it was when he was in office, and his most controversial decision — the pardon of President Richard Nixon — is now widely accepted.

My guess is that history also will treat Mr. Bing more kindly than the polls do today. Especially if he gracefully steps aside.

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.

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