The last time Detroit had a Republican mayor, Germany was the only country whose imported cars threatened the American auto industry, the moon was not a place where any human beings were expected to set foot any time soon, and African-Americans in the Deep South didn’t eat in the same restaurants as whites.
Detroit’s last GOP mayor was Louis C. Miriani, a son of Italian immigrants, who served from 1957 to 1962. By the time he left office, the Republican brand was ebbing in Detroit, one of the country’s most Democratic-dominated cities.
“The last mayor considered to be a Republican would have been Louis C. Miriani,” said Berl Falbaum, a former Detroit News reporter who covered Detroit politics in the 1960s and now teaches journalism at Wayne State University.
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The former city council president was defeated overwhelmingly in 1961 by a charismatic, John Kennedy-like Democrat, Jerome Cavanagh — the first of a string of Democratic mayors.
It could be argued that 1961 was the election in which Detroit started on the path that led to its economic collapse 52 years later.
Mr. Miriani was elected to city council in 1947 and, as council president, automatically became mayor after Mayor Albert Cobo’s death in 1957. He was elected in 1958. Under Mayor Miriani, a convention hall — later named after Mayor Cobo — and other parts of the Civic Center were completed and the city’s freeways, water system, and port were expanded.
Mr. Miriani was convicted in 1969 of evading federal income taxes, failing to pay taxes on $261,000 in income. He served 294 days in prison in 1970 and 1971 and died in 1987 at the age of 90 in Pontiac, Mich.
After leaving office in January, 1962, Mr. Miriani went to work as executive vice president of the Aronsson Printing Co., of Detroit. In 1965, he was re-elected to Detroit City Council but left after his conviction.
Jack Casey, a Toledo native and former Toledo Times reporter who covered Detroit politics for the Detroit Free Press from 1956 to 1962, said Mr. Miriani was not an effective mayor, but that he had a lot of institutional support, including from the United Auto Workers.
“He was a do-nothing mayor. He didn’t do anything to solve any problems. He created problems,” Mr. Casey said. He said he was aware that Mr. Miriani was a Republican, but that “he did not run as a Republican.”
“He ran as a reactionary person. He liked people with money,” said Mr. Casey, who went on to work for Mayor Cavanagh and then to careers in radio, television, and public relations in Detroit.
The Detroit Free Press wrote in Mr. Miriani’s obituary, “Miriani confronted a series of urban problems that plagued subsequent mayors: rising unemployment and demands for public services, racial tensions, falling tax revenue, and the flight of industry and white residents to the suburbs and other states.”
The article — co-written by then-Free Press City Hall bureau chief David Kushma, now The Blade’s editor — reported that Mr. Miriani was alternately irascible and ingratiating, considerate to supporters and often impatient and insulting to critics. He said he served no special interests, “only the public interest.”
In 1957 he refused to welcome delegates to an Islamic convention because some speakers were “anti-American,” according to the Free Press. And in 1959 he refused to attend a welcome for a top Soviet official in Detroit as “not in the public interest.”
Mr. Miriani pleaded unsuccessfully for more state and federal aid for Detroit, and tried to deal with Detroit’s economic problems by cuts in city spending and services. He rejected demands that the city enact an income tax on residents and suburban commuters who worked in Detroit. Later, the city did institute an income tax.
Mr. Miriani presided over a crackdown on crime that outraged black leaders and mobilized black voters to support Mr. Cavanagh.
The Free Press said, “Black ministers and residents held the mayor responsible and vowed to defeat him. They, along with blue-collar and jobless voters and city employees opposed to Miriani’s tight-fisted spending policies, backed challenger Jerome Cavanagh, an obscure 33-year-old lawyer and political novice.”
Detroit — like Toledo — has nonpartisan municipal elections, and observers say political party is rarely invoked publicly, especially by Republicans. Mr. Miriani identified as a Republican early in his career but was strictly nonpartisan by the time he became mayor.
Bill Ballenger, a former state lawmaker who publishes Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said Mr. Cobo was the last definite Republican mayor. His party affiliation can be stated with confidence because he was the Republican candidate for governor of Michigan in 1956, losing to incumbent Democrat G. Mennen Williams.
“There never was much [Republican Party in Detroit] even in the ’50s and ’60s. There were some councilmen who got elected, closet Republicans, but they’re pretty much all gone today,” Mr. Ballenger said.
Preceding Mr. Miriani was a series of Republican mayors starting in 1933 with Frank Couzens, John W. Smith, Richard Reading, and Edward Jeffries, ending in 1948. Democrat Eugene Van Antwerp was mayor from 1948 to 1950.
Mr. Van Antwerp was followed by Mr. Cobo, a business executive who was “loaned” to the city to help it through a financial crisis. He served seven consecutive terms as treasurer, 1935 to 1949.
Mr. Cobo won two two-year terms and then a four-year term, dying near the end of his third term. Mr. Cobo had decided not to run again in 1957, and Mr. Miriani was already running in the 1957 elections, having easily led the primary contest the week before Mr. Cobo’s fatal heart attack.
Though Mr. Cavanagh upset Mr. Miriani in 1961 and he was a popular mayor, his second term was marred by riots in 1967.
Republican power waned in Detroit just as the city’s prosperity and population peaked. Roiling beneath the surface was ethnic tension, between the working class whites and blacks who had flocked to the city for its auto factories.
Mr. Falbaum, 74, said Mr. Cavanagh tried to solve problems that previous mayors tried to sweep under the carpet.
“I believe that the seeds for the riot were planted over the years by other mayors — more conservative, less responsive to black complaints. Jerry Cavanagh, who tried to do the right things for blacks — integrated the police department, responding to black concerns — suffered the worst riot in the country at the time. That to me was a great tragedy,” Mr. Falbaum said.
After him came a string of Democratic mayors, including current Mayor Dave Bing.
Conservative writers have cited Detroit as a lesson in one-party rule and Democratic policies.
Columnist Rich Tucker wrote, “One-party government quickly became bad government, featuring a stream of liberal, blue-state policies such as sweet deals for government unions. Now, though, the bill has come due for these liberal policies.”
Contact Tom Troy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419--724-6058.
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