Coleman Alexander Young wasn’t just another mayor who came to office in 1973 in the long- running history of Detroit’s political and social evolution.
Young was not only a skillful and tough negotiator, he also knew how to interact with men and women in business suits when it came to the financial wellbeing of the city of Detroit.
Indisputably, that is largely because Young was a man who understood the era that birthed him into political power and popularity.
He was the first Black mayor in Detroit’s history, joining the ranks of other notable cities in the 1970s that put Black political leaders in charge, an example being when Gary, Indiana, elected Richard Hatcher mayor.
So as Detroit grapples with a ballooning deficit that is over $300 million with a real possibility of either bankruptcy, a financial manager or a consent agreement, an intriguing question is, what would Mayor Young do if he were in office at this point in time?
Like Detroit 2012, the city has been here before. It was in 1981 when it faced a deficit of $133 million, an amount that today translates into $331 million.
Tim Kiska, WWJ editor and a historian in political journalism, writes, “We forget that the early 1980s were a difficult time in Michigan — even more difficult, on some levels, than what we’ve faced since 2008. Unemployment hit the double-digit mark in February 1980, and stayed there until 1985, peaking at 16.8 percent in Dec., 1982. It hasn’t been that high in the current recession.”
Mayor Young formed a diverse civic leadership committee led by retired Ford Motor Company executive Fred Secrest and brought in Felix Rohatyn, the man credited to have saved New York in the 1970s when it teetered on the brink of financial collapse.
Rohatyn, who would later serve as U.S. ambassador to France under President Bill Clinton and a respected investment banker, was recently appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sit on the board of New York State’s $25 billion infrastructure bank, to help Cuomo get his “New York Works Fund” off the ground.
When Young tapped Rohatyn, the urban financial expert’s initial diagnosis of Detroit’s financial crisis was between extreme pain and agony.
Because the reality was — and is still — that Detroit has more of the really basic, core problems of older cities than any other major city. There is no doubt that we have an ongoing survival crisis caused by the city’s requirement to reduce its services as a result of the general economic decay of its basic industries.
Thus, the Secrest Committee with Rohatyn and his staff leading the effort came up with a three-part proposal to address Detroit’s financial woes at the time. The proposal included employee concessions, the sale of bonds and an income tax increase, raising the tax on residents from 2 percent to 3 percent and on non-residents from .5 percent to 1.5 percent.
However, as has always been the case, any such tax increases require approval by Lansing lawmakers and a vote of the people in Detroit.
Despite Young facing reelection in 1981, he was relentless in battling the financial crisis. So the skillful mayor put together a group of respected civic and corporate leaders to advocate on behalf of the city in Lansing. He picked then General Motors CEO Tom Murphy and UAW President Doug Fraser to head the Lansing delegation and testify on behalf of a tax increase before a rare joint session of the legislature.
Both Murphy and Fraser had distinguished themselves as men who have a mastery of tackling big issues, and their affable and commanding personalities in leading major organizations were an added advantage going before the legislature.
In short they were qualified and respected. The credibility and the personality of individuals who appear before any public body in approving major decisions is key to any negotiations.
But another key ingredient in helping Detroit attack its financial crisis at the time was a special relationship that Mayor Young had with then Republican Gov. William Milliken (Milliken endorsed the current Gov. Rick Snyder who is in negotiations with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing), who has been rated the best Republican governor in the state’s history.
Milliken, who was a moderate and an environmental advocate from the liberal town of Traverse City, stood for Detroit during an era where it was rare to do so because of the racial climate at the time. But Milliken did not walk away from Detroit. His bond with Young was a major factor in guiding and helping the city right the wrongs of its financial issues.
So Detroit under Young, working closely with Milliken, put together a coalition of Democrats from the city and Republicans from the other side of the state to provide the votes needed to get the legislature to approve a tax hike, which succeeded.
Former Michigan Chief Justice Conrad Mallett Jr., chief administrative officer at the Detroit Medical Center who is currently a member of Gov. Snyder’s Detroit Review Team, as a key lieutenant to Mayor Young then led the campaign for the tax increase during a special election. Voters approved the hike by a 68-32 margin.
Detroit was able to get the banks to purchase the bonds and city unions including police and fire took the concessions.
Detroit was saved then.
Former Young spokesman Bob Berg said, “Every situation is different, so it is difficult to speculate on the specific solution that Mayor Young would have fashioned if he were confronted with today’s situation.”
However, he added, “If you look at the crisis he confronted back then, what stands out is the vision, leadership and political courage he showed in developing an overall solution to the problem and then forming a coalition with the community, civic, labor and corporate leadership that made the solution a reality.”
Young was alway
s willing to take risks, Berg noted.
“A lot of his advisors told him it was political suicide for him to propose a tax increase in an election year, but he was determined to come up with a solution and he succeeded,” Berg said. “The fact that the voters approved it by more than two-thirds showed the confidence they had in his leadership.”
At a New Detroit Inc. awards ceremony honoring Milliken a few years ago at the Detroit Opera House, I watched the former governor talk about his special relationship with Young and how they would disagree on a number of issues but in the end arrive at an amicable resolution. The two men understood each other.
There is no doubt that Young had tremendous clout and the political acumen that allowed him to engage in political power play in preserving Detroit’s interest no matter what it was. He was a realist who knew when to demand and raise hell, and when to go into the negotiating room and make things happen.
He understood how to utilize the skills and credibility of others who may not have shared his own background and experience in the Joshua generation of the Civil Rights Movement to his own benefit and that of the city.
So at this point of no return, Detroit needs to show some political muscle, but also skill in negotiating an agreement that averts a financial catastrophe.
We all aspire to do better than those who came before us. Coleman Young set the benchmark and he sure played hardball, which explains the title of his autobiography, “Hard Stuff.”
The challenge is for the current leadership in Detroit to make it work. This is your Coleman Young moment. Show us your mojo.
When asked about what motivates progressive people to push for social change, Young offered his own prescription:
“Nobody does something for nothing. No such thing as a free lunch. People come together in coalition because they think it is to their personal advantage, and to the degree that their personal direction and aspiration merge with that of the others in the coalition, they will move forward.”
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of a six-part series on the Obama presidency, including “Obama and Black Loyalty” published last year. His latest book is “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue written by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. His upcoming books in 2012 are “Obama and Jewish Loyalty” and ”Obama and Business Loyalty.” Listen to him every Thursday, 11:30 a.m., on WDET 101.9 FM Detroit and every Sunday, 9 to 10 p.m., on “The Obama Watch” program on WLIB 1190 AM-New York. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.