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The man who should have been Detroit's mayor

Jack Lessenberry

Today, Detroit still has a lot of problems. But the city is out of bankruptcy. It is no longer crippled by huge debts and unfunded pension and benefit mandates.

The population loss has slowed to a trickle, the streetlights are on again, and Midtown is booming. But 11 years ago, Detroit was an entirely different place. White flight had been succeeded by black middle-class flight that was almost a stampede.

The city budget deficit was out of control, and the city was being misled by a “hip-hop mayor” who was even then constantly in the news for various scandals. That year, Detroit faced one of the most crucial mayoral elections in its history. And the contrast couldn’t have been sharper.

Kwame Kilpatrick was running for re-election against Freman Hendrix, a city finance expert who had been deputy mayor under Dennis Archer. Hendrix was a dedicated family man whose passion was Little League baseball; Kilpatrick, a synonym for self-indulgence.

Hendrix had spent eight years balancing budgets and putting together coalitions to get things done. He was endorsed by both Detroit papers.  

But when the votes were counted, everyone was stunned. Kilpatrick had defied the polls and been re-elected. What followed, of course, was the scandal that made Detroit the laughingstock of the nation.

Today, Kilpatrick is officially federal prison inmate Number 44678-039.

He’s behind bars until at least late 2037. Meanwhile, Hendrix is still around, doing his best to help Detroit in important but fairly low-profile jobs. He’s Detroit’s lone representative on the nine-member Regional Transit Authority board, and one of two on the Great Lakes Water Authority board.

The other morning, I met him for breakfast to get his take on how Mayor Mike Duggan and his city are doing. “I give him high marks right now," he said.

“He’s been a take-charge leader. He still has a little bit of the pitbull in him – you don’t see it too much these days, but you know it’s there,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix very much wanted to lead. But today, he is anything but bitter. At 65, he is still trim, tall and distinguished. I knew that if he had been elected in 2005, the city would have been spared the seamy scandals. 

But I wanted to know if he thought Detroit might have avoided bankruptcy altogether. Joe Harris, then the city’s auditor general, told me at the time he thought emergency management and bankruptcy were eventually inevitable no matter who won.

Hendrix wasn’t sure, though he did think he could have kept the city afloat considerably longer. But he did agree that the collapse brought things home to people as they never had before.

“It took bankruptcy, unfortunately, to make people see the city could no longer do all the things that it used to do. There’s lots more that still needs to be done. Would you put your grandchildren into Detroit schools?” he asked me, knowing the answer.

But Hendrix strongly believes in Detroit. “My daughter Erin, who is an attorney, took a $200,000 pay cut to come back here from Chicago. She wanted to come home. All these kids want to come home, and are coming home.”

He knows there is a long way to go. Happily, he thinks Detroit is getting there.?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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