Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state Legislature, Thursday, February 7, 2013. (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 hard economic times.

Detroit is up against plenty of threats. But the most pressing one today is political.

If Michigan Governor Rick Snyder gets his way, Detroit runs the risk of losing democracy.

Snyder, a Republican who led the charge for Michigan’s enactment of an anti-labor “right-to-work” law last year, is targeting Detroit for a state takeover that will disempower the elected mayor and city council and give authority over the city’s finances, service delivery and direction to an appointed “emergency manager.”

The dramatic move, which is opposed by local officials and community activists, seems all but certain to be made within days. Snyder signals that he is determined to go ahead, employing the authority that he has taken up for himself to disempower local elected officials and replace them with an appointee who can impose cuts to public services, toss out policies established by the voters and their elected representatives and trash contracts with unions representing municipal employees.

As significantly, the emergency manager has the power to begin bartering off Detroit’s assets in a frenzy that could privatize waterfront recreation facilities, museums and public utilities.

The Reverend D. Alexander Bullock, a prominent local pastor who serves as president of the Detroit chapter of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, tells local reporters that Snyder’s intended move is nothing less than “the death of democracy in Detroit.”

His point is well taken. Detroit City Council member Ken Cockrel Jr. says “strong, independent-minded [citizens] 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?”

Snyder is preparing to do by fiat 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 the city.

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

Michigan voters 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 Michigan’s largest city, and the governor’s plan has drawn national notice.

“In this particular case, you have to in some degree look at it as a hostile takeover,” explains David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies. 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 the move 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. That’s true enough. And it is true that local officials have had a very hard time dealing with the issues that arise when a 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.

The Detroit News notes that the city’s elected representatives are angry with the state for failing to provide over $220 million in revenue-sharing payments.

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

“Why not give the city its revenue sharing?” asks 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?”

“The governor won’t admit that the state is culpable in why and how Detroit has got here,” State Senator Bert Johnson, a Highland Park 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.”


The concern on the ground in Detroit is that Snyder is not really interested in stabilizing Detroit’s finances.

For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with tremendous public assets, 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. Even the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which has an art collection valued at more than $1 billion, could be up for grabs.

As the Metropolitan AFL-CIO noted, the governor’s move “will benefit out of town creditors and make our communities less livable.”

And it will all happen without the approval of the voters or their elected representatives.

That’s the fundamental challenge.

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 elected officials won’t be making any of those calls.

An appointee of a Republican governor will be doing do.

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. Eighty-two percent of Detroit residents voted “no.”

“When times are tough,” local union officials said in a statement released after the governor’s announcement, “it is especially important that decisions are made democratically and locally.”

That’s an essential American principle that Governor Snyder seeks to abandon with a power grab that should unsettle Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What’s happening in Detroit is not what democracy looks like.

Who’s to blame for debt and economic disarray? As Allison Kilkenny writes, Occupy activists are shifting the debate—while also helping people recoup their losses.