Detroit bulls ahead under Mayor Young. Former taxi driver, auto worker guides city through tough straits
Detroit — You can't miss the striking white billboards scattered around downtown Detroit these days. Each proclaims: ``Mayor Young -- Power for Tomorrow.'' To many around the country, Detroit and the name of Coleman Young, its mayor for the last 12 years, have become almost synonymous.
But the ad blitz is a reminder that it's time once again for Detroit voters to make a choice.
Mayor Young, a one-time taxi driver, auto-assembly worker, and state senator seeks a fourth term. Few doubt he will get it. City residents gave him a 70-percent-job-approval rating in a recent Detroit News poll.
Others do want the job. More than a dozen candidates plan to battle it out in a nonpartisan September 10 primary. The top two vote-getters will face each other in the November election. Thomas Barrow, president of a minority-owned accounting firm, is considered the Mayor's most likely election opponent.
Long active in civil rights causes and union organizing, Mayor Young, who remains wary of the press and prearranged interviews, is generally recognized as a good manager and bold city leader. During his administration, Detroit has taken some of its roughest economic blows and worst population losses. The unemployment rate here is still double the national average and an estimated 70 percent among black teenagers. The Mayor terms jobs the city's ``number one need.''
In a move that still impresses most of his elected counterparts across the country, Mayor Young managed to persuade voters here to raise the local income tax in 1981 by one percent. City labor unions also made significant concessions.
But to some voters and suburbanites the Mayor's pitch for such help in a city now 65-to-70-percent black seemed to have distinct racial overtones. ``They're after us,'' he often said, referring to the threat of a state takeover if the city went bankrupt.
Though some outside the city say control by a regional authority makes more economic sense, the Mayor does not buy it.
``He's not going to take anything owned by the city of Detroit and turn it over to a regional authority,'' says Mr. Berg who insists that the very concept has racial overtones that tend to be ignored.
``There's a very strong feeling on the part of a lot of people in this city that . . . the people who fled to the suburbs are basically trying to reach back in and take the jewels with them.''
``One change I have noticed since the late '70s with the Reagan Administration cuts and the recession is much more of a siege mentality on the part of the city administration,'' observes Richard Elling, a political scientist at Wayne State University.
One reason: there is often little sentiment in the state legislature or suburbs to help Detroit financially. ``Young is a loser in a losing city,'' says a construction worker. He says he keeps moving further out from Detroit and now lives in Milford, Mich.
One of Mayor Young's major coups in the light of such stereotyped views of the city has been to persuade officials of the area's three counties to help pay for expansion of Cobo Hall with a hotel tax. The same group is also talking about other improvements.
Critics such as Mr. Barrow argue that the Mayor's focus on development in the city ignores the needs of the neighborhoods. Mayor Young counters that all residents are helped by the new jobs.
When Young was first elected in 1973, one of the top campaign issues was the predominantly-white police department. The Mayor has pursued a 50-50 minority-to-white police hiring-and-promotion goal as more reflective of Detroit's makeup.
By bringing aboard a number of blacks as department heads, lawyers, and accountants, the Mayor has also broadened the racial mix in top city jobs.
Mayor Young does not really need white votes to win. But he has been getting more of them in each election -- 20 percent last time -- and views that as important. ``He feels the broader the coalition, the more you can accomplish,'' says Mr. Berg.