emergency manager

How Detroit Lost Its Democracy


Detroit’s skyline. In several Michigan cities, Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) has suspended local democracy and then rolled back the public sector. The Motor City may be next.

For years, progressives have been battling to defend the public sector of the American economy against the likes of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc) and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. And more recently, they have fought against the Republican-led legislative efforts to restrict access to voting.

In Detroit they will have to do both at once.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder is using a highly contested Michigan law to bring the city of 700,000 under state “emergency management.” Kevyn Orr, his appointed manager, will have near-total control over the city’s affairs, superseding the elected mayor and city council. Orr—a lawyer with a background in business restructuring—will be tasked with fixing the city’s chronic budget woes.

Needless to say, many Detroit residents are not happy. “Essentially what it means is that Detroit voters have been robbed of the right to vote,” said Darrell Dawsey, a columnist for Deadline Detroit and Motor City native.

In a referendum last November, Michigan residents—including 82 percent of Detroit voters—overturned Public Act 4, the law that gave emergency managers such sweeping authority. But shortly after, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a new, similar law.

Snyder and his supporters contend that state control of Detroit’s finances is necessary because city leaders haven’t come up with a feasible plan to return the city to solvency. Snyder has given little detail, though, on how Orr will solve decades of structural economic obstacles in a span of 18 months.

But what if he doesn’t solve them at all? If Snyder were looking to push a conservative economic agenda on an unwilling populace (sound familiar?), emergency management would be the perfect way to do it.

“For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with tremendous public assets,” The Nation’s John Nichols reported. Oft-discussed plans for “fixing” Detroit include privatizing the city’s water department and converting beloved Belle Isle into a state park or—less realistically—a sovereign territory run by wealthy libertarians. Emergency managers in other Michigan cities have dissolved union contracts and sold off public assets.

Half of Michigan’s black residents are now governed by an unelected emergency manager; Detroit is over 80 percent African-American.

“You can get away with doing this to struggling black townships and cities,” Dawsey said. “But I think this is going to find its way into a lot of white folks’ communities too. It’s sort of like my aunt used to say down south: ‘If they come for me in the morning, they’re coming for you at night.’”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Ian Freimuth.