JoAnn Watson is the Ted Cruz of Detroit City Council: The junior Texas senator compares Obamacare to Nazis. She likens Kevyn Orr’s decision to lease Belle Isle to the state to rape.
No hyperbole goes too far for either of them.
“It should never be touched,” she said of the “treasure” of Belle Isle. “It’s a disgrace before God to have this outrageous seizing of an asset.”
Like Cruz, Watson understands the language of the demagogue and the strategic power of just saying no to the future, even as it unfolds. From her pulpit in the hothouse atmosphere of City Council, she calls out abominations, knowing there are “amens” to be had out among the fearful, who always have more to lose.
“It should never be touched” might well be the anthem of dug-in Detroiters, those remaining who cling to a Detroit that’s a kind of ancient city-state, its citizens standing ready to fight off invaders. In this construct, the state doesn’t represent the public; it’s an evil empire trying to wrest away territory from its rightful owners.
They would prefer a scruffy, not-so-belle island that’s in city hands to an improved park that’s leased by the state.
Would-be mayor Benny Napoleon would rather lease the island to entrepreneurs than to the state — because private business is more trustworthy than the state? Would-be mayor Mike Duggan says he’s working out a plan for the city to run an improved Belle Isle and save $6 million a year. That’s ambitious but questionable: Why not let the state take this burden off Detroit’s back?
Shorn of real power, the council’s still instructive, a Greek chorus commenting on the action rather than participating in it. They’re going through the motions. Even Saunteel Jenkins, the new council president, wants to hold yet another hearing on Belle Isle, enabling the usual activist and delusional voices to register their objections at least one more time.
She is also realistic, though, about the cards Orr holds and the tight time limit the City Council has to act. “We’ll have to work very, very hard, but we are willing to do whatever it takes to come up with a better alternative,” she told me. Jenkins believes council can make constructive changes to the lease, or perhaps develop a better plan.
Council member Brenda Jones objected to Kevyn Orr’s lack of transparency on the subject. But the truth is Orr has never masked his interest in revisiting a state lease. I’ve heard him at least twice signal his intention to do so.
“Disrespect” and “lack of transparency” are standard objections in the City Council chambers to this plan and so many others that disrupt the status quo or embrace change.
Jenkins has the chance to be a leader, not just a listener. She can begin to construct a 21st century City Council that’s a constructive voice, not just a nay-saying body pushing back against outsider Orr.
The City Council has had years to develop a viable plan for Belle Isle that would improve the site and welcome more visitors. Orr’s decision should have been expected. The new shrieks of protest ring loud if not true.
Change is hard. And in Detroit, especially, objections are always in order.
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesdays and Thursdays.