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An 'Affront to Democracy' Steers Detroit Toward Austerity | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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An 'Affront to Democracy' Steers Detroit Toward Austerity


A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Recalling the partial meltdown of a nearby nuclear power plant a decade earlier, and a book that revealed the extent of the crisis, Gil Scott Heron sang in 1977, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”

The city survived, and remains home to 700,000 Americans and the symbolic center of the nation’s auto industry. But after decades of neglect by federal and state officials, and a meltdown of American manufacturing, Detroit is facing exceptionally hard economic times.

Detroit is up against plenty of threats. But the most pressing political threat over the past several months has come from a Republican governor who seeks to impose his will on a city that did not choose him or his austerity agenda.

On Thursday afternoon, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder made his move.

And the notion that the people who live in America’s great cities must govern their own affairs took a huge hit.

Snyder, the Republican who led the charge for Michigan’s enactment of an anti-labor “right-to-work” law last year, announced that he had approved legal steps to steer the state’s largest city toward bankruptcy. He made no bones about who was in charge, declaring in a statement attached to the bankruptcy filing that “I’m making this tough decision…”

Earlier this year, the governor engineered a state-driven takeover of Detroit that disempowered the elected mayor and city council and gave authority over decisions about the city’s finances, service delivery and direction to an appointed “emergency manager.”

On Thursday afternoon, Snyder signed off on the filing of paperwork seeking Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. On Friday, a Michigan judge ordered Snyder's emergency manager to withdraw the federal bankruptcy petition. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's order declared the 2012 Michigan law that allowed Snyder to approve the city's bankruptcy filing violated the state Constitution. Michigan's Republican attorney general immediately announced that he would appeal the ruling, and analysts warned that federal bankruptcy law often trumps state protections.

The legal wrangling will go on for months, perhaps years.

If the bankruptcy court eventually accepts the argument presented by Snyder and his emergency manager, Detroit will become the largest American city to enter bankruptcy. It will, as well, be the largest American city in the recent history of the republic to take such a dramatic step without following the basic practices and procedures of democratic governance.

To be sure, Detroit faces serious financial challenges. It has huge debts, high unemployment and tough prospects as a historic industrial city in an age of deindustrialization. It suffers from the broad neglect of urban America by federal officials who are so disengaged that, on Thursday, Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, complained in a stinging letter to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, “For too long, lawmakers and regulators have stood aside as cities grapple with budget deficits, unfunded pensions and crumbling infrastructure.”

Detroit’s economic challenges are not unique.

What is distinct about Detroit is the denial of democracy.

No matter how tough things get, most American cities face their challenges under the direction of local officials who take their cues from voters. When officials fail to act, or act inappropriately, they are replaced by the ballot. Sometimes, in emergency situations, they are recalled and removed from office in order to make way for necessary changes.

But the voters still call the shots.

That’s how it is supposed to be in America.

There is an understanding at the federal level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about federal policy should be elected.

There is an understanding at the state level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about state policy should be elected.

In most of the country, there is an understanding at the municipal level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about municipal policy should be elected.

But that’s not what’s happening in Detroit or other cities that have been targeted by Snyder for “emergency management.”

Under the authority that Snyder took upon himself to disempower local elected officials and replace them with his appointees, the governor and his “managers” are making the essential decisions. In Detroit, Snyder has pursued a bankruptcy designation that city officials, residents and representatives of current and retired public employees sought to avoid. And he used a concocted law that a judge has now rejected as unconstitutional.

Snyder's bankruptcy push provoked anger in Detroit, where the Rev. Charles Williams II of the city’s Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, declared, “The emergency manager and Governor Snyder failed. Emergency management was supposed to keep us from going into bankruptcy.”

The emergency manager, Washington, DC, bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr, sought to develop a restructuring plan. But unions representing city workers and retirees objected that he did not make a serious effort to consult with stakeholders. “Governor Snyder’s plan to suspend democracy, drive one of America’s largest cities into bankruptcy and deprive workers of their hard-earned retirement security, moved dangerously closer to reality today when without a single negotiation with unions, workers or retirees, Snyder authorized Detroit’s financial manager to file for bankruptcy,” said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees national president Lee Saunders.

If the bankruptcy process initiated by the governor and his appointee were to go forward, critics of Snyder's move warn that Detroit could face austerity cuts on public services, policies established by the voters and their elected representatives could be rejected and contracts with unions representing municipal employees could be torn up.

There is, as well, the real prospect of a widespread bartering of Detroit’s assets in a frenzy that could privatize waterfront recreation facilities and public utilities.

But protesters, hundreds of whom occupied Detroit’s city hall just last week, are most concerned about the impact of an imposed austerity agenda on retirees, the disabled and young people. “It’s an affront to democracy,” the Rev. David Bullock, who leads the Change Agent Consortium, a Detroit activist group, says of the process. “There’s got to be a better way to fix Detroit without [cutting aid and services for] the most vulnerable citizens.”

That affront to democracy has been deeply felt, and much discussed in Detroit.

When Snyder was in the process of naming his emergency manager, Detroit City Council member Ken Cockrel Jr. explained that “strong, independent-minded [citizens who] want to help the city” by seeking and holding local elected positions have every reason to ask, “Why should I run for public office in the city of Detroit if the only thing I’m going to have the authority to do is pass out resolutions and kiss babies because an [emergency manager] is the one calling all the shots?”

In April, Cockrel announced that he would not seek a new term.

Snyder has moved by fiat to do what he and his political allies could not do at the polls: take charge of local government in Michigan’s largest city. In the 2012 election, Democrat Barack Obama received 98 percent of the almost 300,000 votes cast in Detroit, while Republican Mitt Romney took just over 2 percent. No Republican contender for federal, state or local office won more than 6 percent of the vote in a city where African-Americans make up 83 percent of the population and Latinos account for roughly 7 percent.

Yet now, a Republican governor is setting the city’s agenda as part of a statewide power grab. After Snyder’s takeover of Detroit’s affairs, it was estimated that almost 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American population resides in communities that are run not be local elected officials but by gubernatorial appointees.

Michigan’s citizens rejected Snyder’s approach last fall, voting in a statewide referendum to scrap the emergency-manager law. But Snyder and the Republican legislature turned around and wrote new legislation that gives the governor authority to—in the words of state Representative Rose Mary Robinson, a Detroit Democrat—make moves “without debate, without democratic involvement, without the people’s involvement.”

Detroit is not just Michigan’s largest city. It has, for more than a century, been one of America’s great urban centers. And the governor’s moves over the past several months have drawn national notice.

“In this particular case, you have to in some degree look at it as a hostile takeover,” David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies, said earlier this year. A veteran scholar of urban affairs who has tracked the rise of African-American elected officials in America, Bositis argues that “Detroit is a very Democratic city and it’s being taken over by a very Republican and conservative state government.”

Snyder says his takeover is necessary because—like many great industrial cities that have lost the factories that provided employment and tax revenues—Detroit’s finances are in rough shape. Everyone understands the challenges Detroit faces. Everyone understands that, as in other municipalities across the country, it is possible to point to some of Detroit’s past leaders and say that they made ill-thought and self-serving choices that undermined the city and its finances. And everyone understands that current officials have had a very hard time grappling with the issues that arise when a debt-burdened city’s tax base is disappearing.

But what Snyder does not mention is that the state he runs has played a role in Detroit’s decline by withholding financial assistance that is due to the city. While the federal government has neglected the challenges faced by cities that are drowning in debt, Michigan government has refused to toss available lifelines. The Detroit News has noted the anger of the city’s elected representatives over the failure to provide more than $220 million in revenue-sharing payments.

The money was supposed to be paid to the city after it capped income tax rates. Yet, even as Detroit’s economic circumstance worsened, Snyder refused to provide the needed assistance.

“Why not give the city its revenue sharing?” asked State Representative Brian Banks, a Democrat whose district takes in a portion of Detroit’s northeast side. “Why not start giving a portion of it?”

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“The governor won’t admit that the state is culpable in why and how Detroit has got here,” State Senator Bert Johnson, a Detroit-area Democrat, told the News. “If you cut revenue sharing, you cut money for the Police Department that has to manage the 139 square miles that is Detroit.”

Disputes between Michigan and Detroit over state aid are nothing new. But the state’s hard line has left the city vulnerable. And there’s plenty of grumbling in Detroit about the prospect that, as is so often the case in austerity moments, valuable public assets will be sold off at bargain-basement prices to private interests.

For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with significant properties, including Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River, which is managed by the Detroit Recreation Department. It’s got public utilities, such as the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage. As the Metropolitan AFL-CIO has noted, the governor has created a circumstance that could lead to a rapid selling off of assets that benefits buyers living outside Detroit while making the community “less livable.”

All of this, from the appointment of the emergency manager to the bankruptcy filing to the austerity agency that is now increasingly likely to be implemented, will happen without the approval of the voters or their elected representatives.

This is a fundamental issue.

In tough times, under pressure from lenders and taxpayers, cities often make cuts. They even privatize services and sell off public facilities.

But under Snyder’s emergency manager law, Detroit’s voters and their elected leaders aren’t making the choices that will determine Detroit's direction.

A Republican governor, and his appointed manager, are calling the shots.

This is not what the voters of Detroit asked for. Last fall, they had an opportunity to vote on whether the state should maintain the emergency manager law. 82 percent of Detroit residents voted “no.”

“When times are tough,” local union officials said in a statement released after the governor announced in March that he was appointing his emergency manager, “it is especially important that decisions are made democratically and locally.”

That’s a basic American principle that Governor Snyder has abandoned with a power grab that should unsettle Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What’s been happening in Detroit is not what democracy looks like.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). Naomi Klein says, “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”

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