Feature

Why Detroit's mayoral election matters

A state-appointed executive will be in charge, but the vote isn't entirely meaningless

On Tuesday, Detroiters headed to the polls for a primary election to winnow the field of mayoral and city council candidates ahead of a general election later this year.

Yet the city is bankrupt and under the stewardship of a state-appointed executive official who has effectively relegated the city's elected mayor to a largely powerless, figurehead position. And even after a new mayor is elected, he or she will still have to play second fiddle to the acting emergency manager for at least another year.

Given Detroit's odd predicament, the mayoral contest may feel like a pointless exercise in democracy. The city's largest newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, rebutted that notion in an editorial this week, proclaiming, "Don't think that your vote doesn't matter, Detroiters."

"It's easy to think that your vote Tuesday won't matter," the paper wrote. "That an emergency manager is running Detroit and the city has filed for bankruptcy, so democracy doesn't matter. That voting won't make a difference. But you'd be wrong."

Detroit wound up in this situation due to a 2011 state law, signed by the newly elected Gov. Rick Snyder (R), that allowed the governor to declare a state of financial crisis in municipalities and to appoint an "emergency manager" to act as an autonomous chief executive. Using that power — which critics contended was tantamount to "financial martial law" — Snyder in March of this year tapped Kevyn Orr to take the position.

That's why Orr, not Mayor Dave Bing, initiated the city's nascent bankruptcy proceedings in July. It's essentially Orr's city — for now.

Orr will remain in power until at least September 2014, unless he's booted by one of the lawsuits arguing the emergency manager law was unconstitutional in the first place. That means he will be in charge of the city's bankruptcy proceedings at the most pivotal time.

Given his diminished position, Bing announced in May that he would not seek re-election, saying he had a problem with "how the state defines the word 'partnership.'" Over half of the city council, too, opted not to run again.

Voters on Tuesday also pared the field of city council candidates, positions that, for the first time in a century, will be chosen by district. Yet that, too, has been cast as an election with dubious purpose.

"For the very first time, we have all these supposed reform breakthroughs with a new city charter, but you've got to ask yourself, 'What difference does it make?'" Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, told the Detroit News.

Still, as the Free Press editorial argued, the election will be critical for the city down the road, if not in the immediate future. Orr will eventually be gone, likely sometime next fall, leaving behind a bankruptcy mess for the next mayor and city council to clean up. How they handle that crisis could determine if the beleaguered city finally turns around, or heads deeper into the red.

"If the way the city spends its money doesn't change, it will soon return to deficits and crippling debt," the editorial warned.

Some candidates even have suggested that due to the bankruptcy proceedings, Orr could be removed immediately, thus returning power to elected hands far sooner.

"In light of the bankruptcy filing, I don't believe he retains his power under state law," Tom Barrow, a former Detroit police chief and mayoral candidate, told the Associated Press. "Bankruptcy laws kick in. Those laws are explicit that the debtor is the municipality and its elected officials."

Still, city officials estimated turnout would fall somewhere between just 12 and 17 percent, as apathetic voters sit on their hands. And early reports Tuesday indicated that was, in fact, the case.

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