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Commentary: Detroit on the Brink

Former Governor Bill Milliken turns ninety today, and just about everyone is publishing some kind of tribute to the longest-serving governor in Michigan history. Milliken himself is not likely to say much today, but that’s not because he isn’t still mentally keen. He called me a couple weeks ago to complain.

“I have to take you to task for poor journalism. You said I was turning ninety. You got the number upside down. I am actually sixty,” he kidded me. The fact is, that the governor is actually a shy man and never made much of his birthday. While his own health is good, in recent months, he’s been dealing with some family illness, and has had less time to pay close attention to public affairs.

Besides, he never has been inclined to second-guess his successors, in public anyway.

But there is a sad irony that Milliken’s milestone birthday comes on a grim day for Detroit. Few if any governors have tried as hard to help the city, even though he politically didn’t need to do so.

Milliken came from a state senate district based in Traverse City that, in his time, may not have had a single black person. He served as governor when Coleman Young was mayor of Detroit, and  Milliken’s fellow Republicans wanted to turn their backs on the city.

Milliken disagreed. He angered his party and used up considerable political capital to help the city. “If Detroit should fail, Michigan will be in such trouble that we’ll find it difficult to recover.

“We are tied together,” he said in nineteen eighty one.  When Detroit ran into economic trouble in the nineteen seventies, Milliken pushed through an equity package providing aid to institutions like the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The city had been bearing the entire financial cost of these cultural institutions, even though they were probably more heavily used by suburbanites.

The governor also helped to clear the way for legislation that helped the city attract a badly needed new General Motors plant. Later, he tried, but failed, to push through a special “distressed cities” initiative. And his working partnership and eventual friendship with Coleman Young became legendary. The somewhat aristocratic Ivy league graduate would have seemed to have little in common with the profane, street wise black mayor.

But in the end, Young would call Milliken “Michigan’s greatest governor,” and Milliken would give a eulogy at Young’s funeral.

Today, Detroit is distressed to a degree neither man could have imagined. This afternoon, Governor Rick Snyder’s financial review team is supposed to recommend whether to appoint an emergency financial manager.

Detroit is billions in debt and about to totally run out of cash. It’s population is less than half what it was when Milliken became governor. One way or another, the city is about to fall under what amounts to state control. Perhaps, this will be a new beginning.

Last summer I asked Bill Milliken if he still believed what he said long ago, that Detroit and Michigan were tied together.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “I think that’s very clear.” Milliken may never live to see a completely healthy Detroit. But my guess is he would regard its recovery as the best birthday present of all.

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