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Commentary: Facing reality in Detroit

Some years ago, when the Green Party in Germany first had a chance to join a coalition government, there was a tremendous battle within the party between the purists and the pragmatists. The purists, who were nicknamed the “fundis,” felt that would be selling out. The practical politicians, called the “realos,” thought that by joining the government they could influence events and at least get some of their agenda enacted.

With many variations, that split gets played out anytime there is a crisis, especially a political one. Yesterday, this happened in Detroit, where Mayor Dave Bing announced he would not join the council in appealing the governor’s decision to turn the city over to an emergency manager, something likely to happen within days. The mayor told a news conference, “we have to stop BSing ourselves, quite frankly,” adding, “it’s a fight we cannot win.”

Instead, he called on his fellow city leaders to be realistic, saying, “we need to spend our time working with  the state … working together so that we can remove the need for an emergency financial manager,” within a year and a half. Why that time frame? Under the new emergency manager law, the city council can if it chooses, cast a two-thirds vote to remove any emergency manager after eighteen months. Nobody knows, of course, what the council will do in September 2014. There will be some different members, and a new system will be in place under which most will be elected by districts. What if they vote to get rid of the manager then and the city hasn’t fully returned to fiscal solvency?

I don’t think anyone knows. But I do know this: In the meantime, it will be up to the emergency financial manager as to whether the mayor and council get paid and how much.

Cooperation would seem to make sense on a number of levels. But whatever your opinion about any of this, the mayor was only being realistic. Any appeal of the governor’s decision doesn’t go to some panel of judges, but to Governor Snyder himself. And there is no reason to think he’ll change his mind, unless the city council has found fifteen billion dollars in a closet somewhere.

Council member Gary Brown agrees with the mayor. But the  rest of the council voted to waste time and energy on an appeal. The mayor was immediately denounced by various politicians running for office in  Detroit. Lisa Howze demanded he resign and said Mayor Bing was a quitter. That’s pretty ridiculous to say about a man who became one of basketball’s greatest  players despite a childhood injury that left him with blurred vision in one eye. Nor is the mayor out there by himself. Yesterday, a survey by Public Policy Polling found only fifty percent of Detroiters now oppose an emergency manager. Forty percent want one. Ironically, the city’s agonies have been played out this winter against the backdrop of the trial of Kwame Kilpatrick, a man who has shown contempt for the idea that politics is supposed to be about doing the best you can for the people you serve.

Whatever else you think of Mayor Bing, he understands that, and proved it again yesterday.

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