By Bankole Thompson
The prevailing wisdom is that the appointment of an emergency manager in Detroit would suppress people’s appetite to vote in this coming crucial primary election. I hope not. And the emergency manager Kevyn Orr did not help matters when he described the city once as “dumb, lazy, rich” in a recent full blown Wall Street Journal interview. Because of public pressure resulting from the interview, Orr’s office is now saying he was referring to past leaders of the city not residents. But he never made that distinction in the Wall Street Journal article. I’ve had series of sit-down interviews with Orr since his appointment, and he always came out to me as one who is candid but careful in the words he chose to describe the current state of Detroit.
That’s why his latest comments totally out of place and unexpected of a man who is still in the crosshairs of those who strongly believe he should not have been here in the first place, is going to further sow seeds of agony, discord, doubt and skepticism in the “good faith” efforts of Gov. Rick Snyder and others who agree that Detroit has a financial crisis that must be tackled.
From my many interviews with Gov. Snyder, the phrases that Orr used in his overview of Detroit, is contrary to how the governor has described Detroit in the past and up till now. I’ve never heard of the governor speak in those terms. Because it is not appropriate and as a public official whether elected or not once you begin to use words like “dumb, lazy” to describe the city or people you are brought in to serve it raises many character questions about how you feel about the city.
There is a place and time to do everything. If Orr’s responsibility is to take care of the finances of Detroit he should do just that and leave the rest to the duly elected officials of Detroit. The city is already in bankruptcy where many questions will be raised in Judge Steven Rhodes court. Detroit can’t afford an emergency manager who is telling the Wall Street Journal that the city he’s appointed to serve was once “dumb, lazy……” And Orr should know very well that in the African American community the word “lazy” and “dumb” are code words that have been used numerous times in the past to describe black elected officials or the black community by extreme conservative critics. And to use those very words in an interview with the nation’s leading conservative media organ explains why some critics in Michigan are already calling Orr “Michigan’s Clarence Thomas.” Clearly he has handed a gift to Michigan Democrats who will lay it all at the feet of Snyder.
The description of Orr as Clarence Thomas-like might be too far but the emergency manager has already created a political albatross that would make it difficult for him to succeed for the entire time he is in Detroit. He has emboldened his critics and proved their skepticism right by using words that no public official should use to describe communities they are serving.
When former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney described 47 percent of people as “moochers” it sunk his campaign. That was his political albatross he was unable to recover from it because no one was listening to him anymore. We don’t expect public officials to talk down on those they are supposed to serve. Even though Orr isn’t running for office, his interview will further create an uncomfortable atmosphere for him to oversee the city’s financial wellbeing.
Maybe that is why Orr’s office is now trying to walk back his remarks by saying he was referring to past leaders. But even at that he mentioned in the Wall Street Journal article about the city having an 8th grade education, was happy with it and went to sleep. Which of Detroit’s past leaders had an 8th grade education? It’s hard to comprehend what he is talking about.
Detroit has a lot of issues and leadership failures but like every other city, it is going through a transition. We can describe the city’s pain in many varied ways but certainly “lazy and dumb” are not the adjectives I would use in my dictionary. Public officials must uplift and inspire hope not insult and talk down on communities no matter what era they are discussing in an interview. I hope Orr recognizes that and take back those words. With those words in the Wall Street Journal, the emergency manager stands to be politically strangled by his critics and the pressure against his appointment will only increase from now on as he’s basically empowered his critics. This is an unnecessary distraction for the entire bankruptcy process.
And this underscores why Tuesday’s primary election is so important. And the two candidates that will give us a real leadership test in the general election are former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. The primary challenge has been mostly a political clown show. It is time for a real race and it begins with Duggan v. Napoleon.
Because there is going to be life after an emergency manager and bankruptcy, and the next chapter of leadership in Detroit cannot bring the city back to this low moment. It should move the city from the current and past doldrums to a new era of political and economic transformation. With all of the developments coming to the city and a booming downtown, the promise of a new Detroit is not unreal. It is here. But first there needs to be a real test of leadership and Duggan and Napoleon should explain how each candidate can steer the leadership ship of Detroit safely to shore.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and politics, the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.bankolethompson.com