Milliken’s Legacy: Focusing on Detroit
March 22, 2013
TRAVERSE CITY – For years Bill Milliken, possibly the Governor who most cared about Detroit, tried to persuade everyone in Michigan that the city and the state’s futures were tied together. “If Detroit should fail, Michigan will be in such trouble that we will find it difficult to recover,” he told a reporter back in 1981. He successfully fought for state aid to the city when that was even more unpopular than it is today. For a while, it helped.
But that was a long time ago. Last week, I had a late lunch with Milliken right as Governor Rick Snyder was announcing his choice for Emergency Manager for the city. “This is sad,” Michigan’s longest-serving governor said, and he wondered about the mood of the people. Milliken, who turns 91 this month, still follows events closely. He comes from Traverse City, a nearly all-white area which lacks major urban problems, and grasped the significance of Detroit to the state soon after he became Governor in 1969. In one of the most remarkable “odd couple” relationships in the history of politics, he and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young became allies in the cause of trying to help Michigan’s largest city.
Against the opposition of many fellow Republicans, he successfully fought to give the city millions of dollars in state aid. He persuaded the National Governors’ Association to hold their annual conference in Detroit in 1977. “If we can’t solve our urban problems, we can’t solve the problems of America,” a then-boyish Milliken told his fellow governors when they arrived. “Cities have always been the center of civilization as we have known it,” he said, predicting our cities would become either, “Monuments—or death mounds—of our civilization.”
He persuaded the Legislature to put together a multi-million dollar, “equity package” for the city. His reasoning was that a large number of people across the state benefited from Detroit institutions like Belle Isle, the Detroit Zoo and the Institute of Arts. The Governor thought it wasn’t fair that the city got stuck carrying the entire cost of running them. Those efforts helped. But the bottom later fell out of Detroit’s economy. City flight accelerated; not only of the white population, but of the black middle class as well. City leaders balanced budgets by borrowing and racking up debt. They agreed to pension plans and retiree health care programs they couldn‘t properly fund.
Last week, after an agonizing review of the city’s finances, the Governor, to no one’s surprise, declared a state of financial emergency and appointed an Emergency Manager. When he takes over March 25, Kevyn Orr, a 54 year old bankruptcy lawyer from the Washington D.C. suburbs, will have more power than the Mayor and City Council ever did.
Then, three days later, he’ll have even more when a new state law kicks in. He will be able to change contracts, sell assets, and do essentially anything he needs to do to get city finances under control.
On Thursday, as Orr was being appointed, Milliken asked me, “Is there a lot of anger among the people?” I said my impression was that there was more desperation than anything else. On March 1, the day the Governor first ruled there was a state of emergency in Detroit, I listened to the announcement with Sheila Cockrel, herself a City Council member from 1994 to 2010. “Detroiters live in fear. They want police who will come, they want street lights that will come on,” she told me. “They want to feel safe, and they want a minimum level of public services.” Reluctantly, she had concluded that an Emergency Manager is necessary, even though it means taking most decisions away from popularly elected leaders.
Later, she explained her thinking in a March 17 Detroit Free Press column: “Voting is a fundamental right, of course, but isn’t the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of equal importance?” she argued. “When local government cannot ensure basic services … when the basic right to life itself is threatened, this is a crisis that dwarfs everything else. It is time to act. To take a risk.”
Other longtime Detroiters—a few of them white—disagree. The Reverend Ed Rowe, Pastor of Central United Methodist Church, said an Emergency Manager was, “Racism.” Bill Wylie-Kellermann, the Pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, called it, “Corporate state occupation.” A man named Donald Handy called it, “A fascist takeover of our largest city.” But looked at legally, it would seem to be none of those things. Under Michigan law, cities are creations of the state. The Legislature could even dissolve Detroit and combine it with Wayne County.
Orr, the newly-appointed Emergency Manager and himself an African-American, said he was more than willing to work with elected officials. His appointment is not open-ended: After a year and a half, a two-thirds majority of City Council could vote to remove the Emergency Manager. He told the Detroit News, “If we have good faith and people are sincere about doing something, this can easily be done in 18 months,” if not sooner. City elections will go on as scheduled this year, and those elected next November will eventually be back in power.
As for naming an Emergency Manager, Milliken wouldn’t second-guess Governor Snyder, whom he supported when he was running in 2010. But back when today’s Governor was still in college, Milliken was saying Detroit is, “In very deep distress today,” and needed to be saved. Today, half a lifetime later, Rick Snyder, Bill Milliken, and Sheila Cockrel (who was once a Marxist) all agree: “We need to just fix this,” Cockrel said. Kevyn Orr will now have more power than anyone has ever had to try.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.