DETROIT -- Days before a tight mayoral primary, Freman Hendrix is lobbying the City Council to kill the proposed $288 million Cobo Center expansion, calling the deal "regional capitulation" instead of "cooperation."
Hendrix, who is third but within striking distance in most polls, sent a letter Thursday to council members outlining his objections to the plan that would transfer ownership of Cobo to a regional authority. In return, the city would get $20 million to pay off parking bonds, shed a $15 million annual subsidy and clear the way for an expansion some say could save the North American International Auto Show.
Hendrix said Detroit's not getting enough, since city firms wouldn't receive preference for Cobo work and Detroit would only have one vote on a five-member authority. He wrote that "leadership cannot be driven by fear" and criticized Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. for supporting it.
"He absolutely did this is in a vacuum," said Hendrix, the former deputy mayor under Dennis Archer. "It seems to be a typical process for Ken when he makes big decisions.
"There is clearly a weakness when it comes to standing up ... for the best interests of Detroit."
Jim Edmondson, a spokesman for Cockrel, called the letter a "blatant political move" that is "beneath Mr. Hendrix" and a "clear sign of desperation."
"Freman Hendrix was the 'operations guy' at City Hall for almost eight years, yet could never get a Cobo Center deal done as the facility deteriorated," Edmondson said in statement. "Now, when a new deal promises more conventions and more jobs for Detroiters while maintaining the city's veto power, Freman has joined with (Council President) Monica Conyers in trying to block Detroit's progress."
The back-and-forth comes one day after a Detroit News/WXYZ Action News poll showed Cockrel tied with businessman Dave Bing at 27 percent, Hendrix at 21 and the other 13 candidates in single digits. The primary, which will propel two candidates to the May 5 general election, is Tuesday -- the same day the council may take up Conyers' resolution to reject the Cobo deal.
Last week, the council split 4-4 on the resolution. Members don't have to approve the deal, but can end it if they vote against it by early March.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who backed the plan, said it would be "utter folly" for Hendrix to sink "the best deal we are going to get" to boost his campaign.
"Freman is playing with a live grenade," Patterson said. "If he blows the deal up at the end ... there will be a lot of finger pointing falling his way."
A representative of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's office told the council this week that there's "no political will" to recast the deal, given the state's economic climate. The Legislature OK'd the plan in December after years of false starts, and Granholm signed it in January.
The plan would create a five-member board to own and run the facility with appointees from the governor, Detroit, and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The board requires unanimous consent for any decision, which Hendrix called "absurd" in his letter to the council.
Bing publicly favors the plan, but declined comment. Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans, fourth in The News poll, has spoken against it on the stump.
"I don't know if (Hendrix) thinks he will get some support from (council) in the dying days of a campaign or whether it's a statesman-like move," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. "Hendrix seems to carving out a pro-Detroit stance on this more than Cockrel and Bing."
It's the second time in a week Hendrix has attacked Cockrel over Cobo. Last week, during a tense debate, Hendrix said: "You sold us out, Kenny." Cockrel retorted: "I was in office months. I got the Cobo Hall deal done."
Hendrix and other opponents, such as Conyers, say they support an expansion but argue the plan is a loser for Detroit.
"How is it that the taxpayers who initially built Cobo Center and whose dollars are paying for police and fire protection for the facility do not receive first dibs on the jobs?" Conyers wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday in The News.
Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins has said she is upset council wasn't included directly in negotiations and noted that Patterson -- often a lightning rod of controversy for the council -- had a key role in the final agreement. Others who support the plan, such as Kwame Kenyatta and Sheila Cockrel, have said Cobo is not a core service. Thursday, she called Hendrix's letter "irresponsible" and accused him of playing "fast and loose" with the issue.
Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Talabi said she still has a lot of concerns, including the effect of taking Cobo parking revenues out of the city's budget. She's still considering her vote, but last week voted against killing the deal.
"We gave up a lot in this," Tinsley-Talabi said. "But I do recognize we have to have a viable Cobo."