This piece is the first in a two-part series about the Detroit mayoral race. Check in tomorrow for part two, about the Democratic candidates currently campaigning.
You could say that Dave Bing is a celebrity politician. But Detroit’s mayor is so mild-mannered, it’s easy to forget that he’s a Hall of Fame basketball star who was drafted second overall in 1966, earned Rookie of the Year honors, and played in the NBA for 12 seasons—most of them, naturally, with the Detroit Pistons. The league chose him as one of its 50 greatest players in 1996, and the Pistons retired his number.
But that’s all history. When Detroiters elected Dave Bing to the city’s top office four years ago, it wasn’t because of his fame. It was because he was boring. When the 65-year-old Bing declared his intention to run back in 2008, Detroit had become something of a spectacle. Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s young and talented two-term mayor, had resigned as part of a plea bargain for perjury: He lied about an affair, as revealed by hundreds of illicit text messages. Much more serious was the rampant corruption in Kilpatrick’s administration. Earlier this year, Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 federal felony charges. He will be sentenced in October.
In contrast, Dave Bing looked downright noble. On the court, he averaged more than 20 points per game despite serious eye injuries as a child and again as a player that left him with blurry vision and no depth perception. After he retired as an athlete, Bing proved himself as a businessman. He founded The Bing Group, a multi-million dollar steel company in Detroit that became one of the most successful African-American businesses in the country. What perhaps impressed Detroiters most? Bing didn’t need the job as mayor, or the renown. The Washington D.C. native’s first summer in Detroit was 1967, the year the city caught fire in—depending whom you’re talking to—a riot or an uprising. He hadn’t been scared away. Forty years later, he was opting into the political fray of one of the most debilitated cities in America.
Bing, a Democrat, won the special election to finish the final months of Kilpatrick’s term, despite murmurings about him being a carpetbagger. (He moved from the suburbs into the city specifically to run for office; Detroiters are nothing if not sensitive to geography.) Meanwhile, Detroit’s challenges deepened as the Big Three car companies—the ones that had defined the city’s success for so long—faced ruin. General Motors (GM) and Chrysler were asking the federal government for emergency loans. Because the supply chain was threatened by GM and Chrysler’s precarious position, Ford’s ability to make cars was also on the line. While only GM is headquartered in Detroit—Ford and Chrysler are outside the city limits—plenty of secondary businesses depend on them. The failure of the companies would have resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs for Detroiters.
The city’s national reputation, too, was taking a beating as the countrywide debate over the federal loans conflated the Motor City with the companies that it housed—as in, for example, the now-notorious New York Times headline on Mitt Romney’s 2008 op-ed: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Against this backdrop of alarm, Dave Bing won the election with 58 percent of the vote (down from 74 percent in the primary, largely due to diminishing union support). Press coverage contrasted his subdued style with Kilpatrick’s flash, and channeled hope for what Bing’s business acumen and steady hand could bring to the city. As The New York Times put it, his supporters “lauded his efforts to treat the city as he would a professional company, calling for cuts, efficiencies, change to match, he said, the smaller size that Detroit, the nation’s 11th most populous city, has become.” (With new census results, Detroit is now the 18th most populous city.)
As Bing’s term winds down this year—he opted not to run again—Detroit can cheer the fact that car companies are reporting record profits and Kilpatrick will soon be held accountable for how he took advantage of a vulnerable city. But of course, Detroit is facing new crises. In Bing’s final year as mayor, the state appointed Washington, D.C., bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr as emergency manager—effectively shunting the mayor aside—and Detroit became the largest city in the United States to ever file for bankruptcy.
In a city that is literally, and painfully, remaking itself, what kind of legacy has Dave Bing left?
To Bing’s credit, he was unafraid to be unpopular. There is no overstating the significance of this, particularly coming after Kilpatrick and other political leaders who, as the Detroit Free Press described, opted for the slow creep of dysfunction—allowing them to save face while in office—rather than seriously tackle the city’s fiscal problems and risk angering citizens. When Bing arrived in office, the city had a $332 million accumulated deficit, more than $15 million in long-term liabilities, and a precarious cash flow. In his second year as mayor, the 2010 Census confirmed the city’s population had dropped to about 710,000 residents from 951,270 in 2000. That’s 25 percent in ten years. Contending that everyone, including City Hall, needed to “share the pain,” Bing was more honest than most about what was at stake.
“I think I was the first (mayor) to say the city has a financial crisis,” Bing said recently.
He acted on it, too. The Bing administration reduced spending to $1.1 billion in the 2013 fiscal year from $1.4 billion in 2009, according to The New York Times. He cut the city’s workforce significantly—1,000 city workers, or 9 percent of the total, were laid off in early 2012. Those who remained faced furloughs, reduced pay, and lost benefits. He swiftly became the target of protests, particularly from union workers. When he proposed ideas like cutting bus service on Sundays—ideas that betrayed his lack of understanding of how Detroiters make do—he earned nothing but ire. The bus proposal didn’t materialize, fortunately. And while Bing’s policies were limited by blind spots and backlash, his efforts altogether did more to help the city than hurt it.
“I didn’t come in here with my idea on making this a long-term third career,” Bing said in an AP report. “I knew what I was up against. I knew there were hard decisions that had to be made and I was committed to make the hard decisions.”
Bing outsourced three existing city departments over his term. The public health department became the Institute for Population Health, a public-private partnership that, the mayor has said, “saved $4 million in administrative costs, which can now be used directly toward health services for our residents.” The city’s workforce-development department became the nonprofit Detroit Employment Solutions (Bing said it cut operating expenses by 20 percent while improving services), and the human-services department shifted into the hands of various independent providers. Detroit also outsourced its payroll and benefit functions, which had been run on a 25-year-old system.
Without experience in the public sector and accustomed to leading as a CEO—he was elected in part because he promised to bring business expertise to the struggling city—Bing neglected the need to court allies in order to accomplish things. He could be tone-deaf, often undercutting what should have been one of his better moves.
He was wise, for example, to initiate a major effort to build a sustainable vision for the city in 2010. A 50-year blueprint for decision-making at all levels, the Detroit Works Project (now called Detroit Future City) was intended as a community-planning effort that would tackle the city’s toughest issues, like vacant space. But its launch was terrible. Planners sorely underestimated the number of people who would show up for community meetings—1,000 showed up for one meeting that had seating for 400. Bing flamed the worst fears of citizens by suggesting that they could be forcibly relocated to more dense neighborhoods. “We will depopulate some neighborhoods,” Bing told a reporter. At another point, he said that relocating residents was “absolutely” part of the plan. “There will be winners and losers, but in the end we've got to do what's right for the city's future,” Bing said. Portions of the raucous town halls that ensued are captured in the documentary Detropia.
The roaring public backlash nearly crushed the project. It was resuscitated largely because of efforts by the Kresge Foundation, a $3 billion private national foundation. In the 2.0 version of the Detroit Works Project, the city had a much less active role in the long-term planning process (and nobody was talking about relocation anymore). Three years later, with groundbreaking civic engagement that was in part developed to patch over the city’s earlier errors, the Detroit Future City framework was released early this year. (I’ve written in detail about Detroit Future City here, here, and here.) Shortly after, as emergency management loomed, Bing gave his final State of the City address.
“Like many Detroiters, I too am a fighter,” he declared. “We can’t and won’t give up on our city.” He used his last turn on the stage to point out that the serious reduction in state revenue-sharing— $700 million over the last 11 years, and $93 million less than when Bing took office in 2009—certainly made balancing Detroit’s budget all the more challenging.
He also championed accomplishments of his administration that are too-little celebrated, given that they are juxtaposed against the city hitting its financial nadir, and Bing’s own lack of charisma. Among them is the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), passed by the state legislature in December after 23 previous attempts failed. A major breakthrough for the car-centric city—a metro region that is not prone to collaboration—Bing said the RTA will “put Detroit on track with other major cities that have mass-transit systems.” The creation of the RTA was the key for Detroit obtaining $31 million in federal funding to build its first light-rail corridor. More and more bike lanes and greenways also opened in the city during Bing’s administration. A new policy allows bikes on buses and trains, and Detroit is becoming a hub of bike manufacturing.
Bing is more or less on track to meet his campaign promise of tearing down 10,000 blighted and dangerous structures, most prominently the famed Brewster-Douglass projects. Eight thousand homes and buildings have come down so far under Bing. The mayor helped create the Detroit Blight Authority this year to keep the momentum going: It’s a nonprofit that makes “total blight elimination” its goal, usually working with private contractors at relatively economical rates.
Detroit also has a new public-lighting authority, run by a five-member board of city residents that means to invest up to $160 million in infrastructure upgrades on the city’s notoriously poor street lighting.
Private development in Detroit has also done well over Bing’s term. A great deal of small businesses and pop-ups opened over the last four years, alongside the mammoth downtown investments by Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Chrysler’s $198 million investment in its Mack Avenue Engine Plant created 250 jobs. And modestly—but importantly—Bing’s administration did not expand the deficit. Instead, it made a $7 million dent in it.
It was a far from glowing term though. Homicides in Detroit hit a 20-year high last year, even as violent crime in other cities declined. The shrinking police force, with a third fewer officers on street patrol than in 2000, is partly to blame. The police department was in turmoil over Bing’s term—it recently hired its fifth police chief in four years, compelling Bing to institute new workplace-harassment policies. One of the short-lived police chiefs, Warren Evans, was asked by Bing to resign in part for the role he played in the death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was carelessly shot in a police raid by a Detroit officer during the filming of an A&E reality show, The First 48. (The cop who pulled the trigger is awaiting a retrial date.)
Kevyn Orr was appointed emergency manager (EM) by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on March 14. As a gesture of collaboration, one of Orr’s first decisions as EM was to maintain the salaries of both the mayor and city council. (For at least the first year, Bing donated his salary to the city’s police department.) However, Bing is reportedly frustrated with the “supposed partnership” of power, which appears to leave him to wait out the final months of his term. He’s also challenged by many who think he should’ve done more to resist the EM—or even the municipal bankruptcy that was declared in June.
“Too many people are asking me about, well, you know, it’s your legacy, I mean, you’re the guy who was here when it happened,” Bing said. “Well, any intelligent person surely would know that based on what I came into, it was inevitable … (bankruptcy) may be the only thing to put a correction on the balance sheet.”
So is Detroit better off now than when Bing began? In many incremental and relatively unfashionable ways, it is. The national picture of Detroit is hardly known for its deepened commitment to regional collaboration via the Regional Transit Authority or the new cooperative authority that governs the renovated Cobo convention center on Detroit’s riverfront (a renovation essential to keeping the North American International Auto Show in the city.) Headlines about Detroit—even local ones—are not dominated by the extensive push toward blight removal over the last four years, or the professional integrity, if not popularity, that Bing brought back into the mayor’s office. These things matter for Detroiters, and are a ballast in amid the bankruptcy and emergency management … even as Bing got a brutal 67 percent “unfavorable” rating in a recent poll of likely voters in the city.
But in the big picture of Detroit’s odyssey, it’s too early to tell what Bing’s far-reaching influence on the city will be, for better or worse. Its excruciating transformation right now presents too many questions about what it will become. Where will his mark be? Where will any of us be? The answers are still just shadows in the bankruptcy court where Kevyn Orr is negotiating for the city’s future.
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