Detroit Mayor: Cockrel, the Insider, Faces Bing, the Outsider

Detroiters face a classic choice on May 5, when they'll pick a new mayor to lead their troubled city. Do they choose the acting mayor, ...
by | March 12, 2009

Detroiters face a classic choice on May 5, when they'll pick a new mayor to lead their troubled city. Do they choose the acting mayor, Kenneth Cockrel Jr., who is steeped in government experience? Or, do they opt for businessman Dave Bing, who says an outsider is what Detroit needs now?

Cockrel, only 43, has served in elected office for the past 15 years, first as a Wayne County commissioner, then as a member of the Detroit City Council. He became acting mayor when Kwame Kilpatrick headed off to prison.

Bing has never held elected office, unless you count the NBA All-Star Team or the Basketball Hall of Fame. The former Detroit Pistons star, 65, is now a veteran business presence in Southeast Michigan.

Bing and Cockrel placed one and two, respectively, in a 15-candidate primary in February. They outpolled Freman Hendrix, who many thought would be elected mayor in 2005 (Kilpatrick came from behind to beat him).

Though the election is nominally non-partisan, Bing and Cockrel are both Democrats. Business leaders have tended to favor Bing and unions have leaned toward Cockrel, but there don't appear to be large philosophical differences between the two men. So, the defining difference is that one is a first-time politician and the other is a long-time politician.

That's not to say the insider-outsider split is the only issue in the campaign. One hot topic is the expansion and renovation of Detroit's convention center. Cockrel, state legislators and suburban governments struck a deal to transfer control of the convention center from the city to a regional authority, which would then provide money for the upgrades (saving Detroit money in the process).

However, the Detroit City Council voted down the plan, saying the city was giving up too much. Cockrel then vetoed the Council's rejection, setting up a legal battle. Bing actually agrees with Cockrel's convention center plan, but he's criticizing the mayor for not winning the votes he needed from the Council.

Bing is also criticizing Cockrel for not disclosing his personal finances. Bing's goal seems to be to portray himself as the clean candidate in a city that has been plagued by corruption. Cockrel ran into some trouble recently when he was found to owe $42,000 in fines for campaign finance violations.

Bing is taking the personal finance issue so far that he's threatening to not debate Cockrel unless the mayor offers the disclosure. If you ever wondered whether John McCain would have been better off following through on skipping that first presidential debate, we may have something vaguely resembling an answer coming out of Detroit.

As he pushes the finance issues, Bing has found himself on the defensive in the past couple of days. Reporters discovered that he didn't have the business degree he claimed and didn't graduate from college in four years, as he also claimed. This has placed him in the awkward of explaining how the statement, "I got an MBA from the General Motors Institute," was metaphorical. Cockrel also has hit Bing for living outside of Detroit until recently.

Of course, I haven't mentioned the truly serious issues the next mayor faces. Those include widespread poverty, a shrinking population and a budget crisis that has reduced the city's bond rating to junk status.

Whoever wins won't have long to prove he is up to the job. The May special election will fill the rest of Kilpatrick's term, which runs through the end of December. The primary for the new four-year term will be in September, followed by a runoff in November.

Previous mayoral previews: New York City, Anchorage

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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