April 16, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Laura Berman: Commentary

Detroit mayoral debate is short on specifics

The air was charged with tension. Men in suits charged down the long hallways at Cobo Center, while their female colleagues struggled to match strides in 2-inch pumps and skirts.

"I would vote for my Chihuahua before I'd vote for Dave Bing," the bartender declared at the Cobo Center cafe, while pointing out that her dog was in fact a Chihuahua-Yorkie whose wild barking drives her family crazy.

It was Mayoral Debate Day at the Detroit Economic Club, when the candidates would square off before an audience of mostly corporate managers and executives.

You could not expect cheers or boos or the kind of uninhibited fan behavior that gave Bing an edge in the last televised debate. But a laugh? Even one would have been nice.

The Detroit Economic Club diners chewed diligently through salad and chicken and cheesecake as the excitement level rose. It got all the way to tepid.

'A financial crisis'

"I do believe we have a financial crisis in the city," said Bing, challenging Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr.'s assertion that he had, as mayor, "saved the city from bankruptcy." Bing suggested that a May crisis was brewing, in the manner of someone who knows a secret but doesn't want to share it fully.

For an hour, they gamely and earnestly uttered the expected: Neither will walk away from a new Cobo Center because, as Cockrel put it, "failure is not an option." Both would like to make Detroit a safer place with better schools and more jobs.

How? Cockrel described the city training an army of would-be workers to quickly earn $30 million in federal money for weatherizing Detroit housing -- a potentially uplifting prospect, if anyone can truly believe that quality workmanship and spiffed-up, weather-tight housing would be the end result.

Bing's idea of providing incentives for businesses to stay in the city, before enticing new business to move here, lacked even a hint of the specific: Tax credit? New toaster?

A highlight of needed inspiration was the ministerial benediction asking God for a spirit of unity and prosperity. Hope didn't make it onto the podium this time.

Does earnestness count?

Maybe earnest efforts to steer a creaky ship are the best Detroit can do right now. Even the candidates recognize that Detroit's era of greatness is, maybe forever, gone the way of the auto industry and Kwame Kilpatrick.

In retrospect, 30 seconds with Bo Obama, the new first dog, would have revived the crowd.

Absent the dog, Fred Graham, a stagehand working on the SAE convention outside the ballroom, described his frustration. He plans to vote for the same candidate he has voted for in the last two elections: himself.