The Motor City Ushers in New Era As Mayor Steps Down After Decades
DETROIT — DETROIT - one of the largest and poorest cities in the United States - is turning over a new leaf.
Coleman Young, the city's heavy-handed, often confrontational mayor, is stepping down. In Tuesday's primary, Detroiters voted for two potential successors. They will face off in November's general election.
``This is obviously a transitional election,'' says Michael Traugott, program director at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies.
From a crowded field of 23 candidates in the primary, 53 percent of the voters threw their support to Dennis Archer, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice. The underdog, who gained momentum in the final days of the campaign, is assistant Wayne County prosecutor Sharon McPhail. With 26 percent of the vote, she became the first black woman ever to vie for the mayor's office in a general election.
``This is a very important election,'' says Lyke Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University here. ``Whoever you get is not going to have [Mayor Young's] distinctive, defiant personality and pizazz.''
Mr. Archer is the more moderate of the two. He has talked about reaching out to the suburbs - a sharp contrast to the hard-nosed approach of Mayor Young.
According to analysts and exit polls, Ms. McPhail's support came from black activists and black women. She, too, is talking about better relations with the wealthy and mostly white suburbs surrounding majority-black Detroit. But her stance appears more defiant than Archer's. ``From now on, no one takes from Detroit without giving to Detroit,'' she told supporters.
After 20 years with the same mayor, some Detroiters are clearly pleased with change. `First 10 years were great'
``This is the first election we have had for a different mayor,'' says Darrell Cochran, a public school maintenance man smiling broadly and handing out campaign literature for Mr. Archer. ``The first 10 years [with Mayor Young] were great,'' he adds, but ``the last six, I think he was stuffing his pockets.''
Near him, in front of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on the city's northwest side, Emma Young and Gertrude Johnson are passing out McPhail flyers.
``We need a woman who's going to straighten out Detroit,'' says Ms. Johnson. ``We need money here and jobs for these people.''
Both women supported Young in the past. ``Coleman Young did a beautiful job having to do with what he got. [But] the factories leave town,'' Johnson adds.
The problem is that the message of change seems not to have galvanized the city. Tuesday's turnout was unremarkable. Two-thirds of the eligible voters did not go to the polls. Here at Precinct 20-10, only 228 of some 600 registered came out to vote.
Some campaign workers here said the race was too much a foregone conclusion. Others, such as unsuccessful mayoral candidate Arthur Blackwell II, suggested the populace wasn't attracted by the candidates' message. City in need of renewal
Of all large US cities, few have been battered as hard as Detroit during the last quarter-century. In 1967, some of the nation's worst rioting occurred here, causing white residents to flee to the suburbs. The two oil embargoes of the 1970s devastated the city's auto-dependent economy. Cutbacks in federal aid and the recession of the early 1980s closed more factories. Detroit's downtown redevelopment projects failed to help.
The result: Detroit has the highest infant-mortality rate and the poorest population of any large US city. All but seven of its last 30 budgets have been in the red. Half of its population is gone, while most of the surrounding suburbs prosper.
Mayor Young used to call the suburbs hostile. With his potential successors talking about city-suburb cooperation, some analysts foresee possibly big changes ahead.
Cooperative action with the suburbs could be a big boost to Detroit, says Joe Ohren, a professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. ``Connections between the city and the suburbs are going to be very different, no matter who the mayor is.... The city of Detroit cannot solve its own problems. We have to look for regional solutions.''
``It's a combination of factors that potentially could turn [the city] around dramatically,'' adds Professor Thompson. The auto industry is on the rebound. The departure of whites can't continue because most of them already have left. The city sports new housing for the first time in many years.
Educational finance reform at the state level could lead to better funding equity between Detroit's children and those in the suburbs. ``There are lots of positive things,'' Thompson says.
Professor Traugott is less sanguine. ``I think a new mayor can restore, at least temporarily, a sense of optimism with a shift in the rhetoric. But until there's an infusion of funds, lasting change will be hard to come by,'' he says.