Rick Snyder

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.

The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit


Yesterday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Kevyn Orr as his pick for emergency manager of Detroit. Orr would wield near total power over the city’s finances, and his duties supersede those of the city’s elected mayor and city council.

In this weekend’s edition of Counterpunch, I wrote an article contextualizing the city’s budget crisis:

Though it’s rarely recognized in state or national media, Detroit has already instituted its own program of devastating austerity in an attempt to regain solvency. The city has closed almost half of its schools since 2005, and 28 more closures were recently proposed. Police officer rolls were cut almost in half between 2000 and 2008. Half of the city’s bus service has been lost since 2005. Of Detroit’s over 300 parks, only 57 will open this year. The budget in place for 2012-13 cut $246 million, 2,600 jobs, and the entire health and human services departments.

Despite all this hacking and slashing, Detroit still faces an imminent cash shortfall. That’s because the city faces a “structural deficit.” Detroit cannot pay for its own needs. It’s just too poor. The city’s budget is for all intents and purposes unbalanceable, at least not without drastic human cost.

Because of this hard math, I argue that we should be troubled by the governor’s plan for Detroit, and by what it suggests about how we treat America’s most underprivileged citizens.

You can read the whole thing here.

Photo: Detroit house, 2009.