Kevin M. McNamara )
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano is fighting for his political life with less than a month to go before the Aug. 5 Democratic primary that will almost certainly decide who will lead the county for the next four years.
A series of scandals in the Ficano administration and the county’s debt problem in the past four years have attracted four well-known Democratic politicians and six others into the primary. The cluttered field includes former Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans, Westland Mayor Bill Wild, state Rep. Phil Cavanagh of Redford Township and County Commissioner Kevin McNamara of Belleville.
It has forced Ficano to scramble for votes as he seeks a fourth term, especially after the powerful United Auto Workers union — a loyal backer of Ficano in past campaigns — decided not to endorse in the primary.
“I’ve had challenges in the past,” Ficano said. “All you can do is show that you’re not a quitter — that you’re ready to come back with solutions.”
But the primary election is occurring as the FBI continues investigating county contracts, severance and pension deals. Four former Ficano aides and a contractor have been convicted of corruption or obstructing justice. The county continues to spend more than $30 million a year above what it takes in and has an accumulated deficit pegged at $175 million.
The scandals and fiscal missteps have taken their toll, said Bill Ballenger, an associate editor with Inside Michigan Politics.
“A non-Ficano candidate is going to have the edge,” Ballenger said.
The longtime statewide political observer doubts Ficano can win “unless he’s got some magic game plan and a lot of money he’s going to throw in at the end and the other candidates cooperate by dividing the votes between them.”
While Ficano appears to face an uphill battle for re-election, the large number of opponents and splintering of votes may help the incumbent overcome the odds in the anything-goes world of Wayne County politics.
Ficano said in a recent interview with The Detroit News that he never contemplated not running for re-election.
“I’ve never been a quitter,” he said. “... Everybody gets betrayed or knocked down — it’s how you react to it.”
Promise of transparency
His elected official challengers have promised transparency and an end to what they call mismanagement and overspending.
■Evans, at a recent Democratic candidates’ forum in Grosse Pointe Farms, said the county needed “a proven leader who can plan, manage and deliver results.” He said he stopped foreclosures when he was the Wayne County sheriff and reduced shootings in Detroit when he was the city’s top cop.
Evans resigned as Detroit police chief in 2010 after his relationship with a subordinate female officer was exposed. He also faced criticism after 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed when police, accompanied by a reality TV crew, fired a stun grenade through a window as they raided a Detroit home in search of a murder suspect.
Evans has been endorsed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and the Michigan carpenters union. He also is expected to get significant support in Detroit’s African-American community and may benefit if suburban county voters split their ballots among the other candidates.
Evans has said some county projects have “gone berserk” and that he would “adequately fund” the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices. Both departments have overspent their annual budgets by millions of dollars in recent years. Both say they’re underfunded.
■Cavanagh, a two-term state legislator and a former four-term Wayne County commissioner has cited his experience in Lansing as setting him apart from other candidates, saying he knows how to work with members of both political parties.
In addition to his experience, what the county is really looking for is someone with ethics, he said.
“I’ve got a family tradition,” said Cavanagh, son of the late Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. “Everybody can say ‘trust me, trust me,’ but look at the history of my family.”
On Monday, he was endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25 and the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, representing 39 unions in the region.
Cavanagh also has attacked the half-built county jail project in Detroit’s Greektown entertainment district, which Ficano halted after it was learned last year the project was $100 million over budget. The “jail debacle” was a result of the lack of transparency and a closed-door philosophy of the Ficano administration, Cavanagh said.
Cavanagh said if elected he would make every county appointee reapply for his or her position. Every job description, salary and the department responsible for paying the person would be listed online, he said.
■McNamara, the son of the late county Executive Ed McNamara and a commissioner since 2006, said he will review county services department by department to find efficiencies and help erase the deficit. The county needs to reduce its spending 10 percent to have a balanced budget, he said.
“Wayne County over the last six years has told the communities what services they’re going to get,” McNamara said. “We’re going to ask the communities what services they want and create a model after that. We have a lot of services that we provide for the counties that they don’t use. Once we jettison those services and fix the bloated middle management, I think we’ll easily find 10 percent. There’s a lot of waste in Wayne County government that needs to go.”
■Wild touts his experience as not only a politician, but a businessman. He has been endorsed by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“I’ve balanced the budget seven years in a row; turned Westland around from a potential $50 million deficit to a $5.6 million surplus; negotiated collective bargaining agreements; put more police officers on the street; expanded recycling and improved senior housing; and brought $200 million worth of private investment to our community,” Wild said.
“Wayne County needs a hands-on, experienced manager with a track record of bringing people together and solving real-world problems,” he said. “I’ve got the skill set and the experience to get the job done.”
Deficit plan proposed
Regarding the deficit, the Wayne County Treasurer's Office has agreed to transfer $150 million to bail out the county from its accumulated debt. Other parts of Ficano’s deficit reduction plan, including the sale of a county-owned waste-water treatment plant and union concessions, have to fall into place for all of the county’s debt to be erased.
But the plan has the tentative approval of the state and the transfer itself has the potential to alleviate a major portion of the county’s debt.
Wayne County commissioners are considering alternative proposals on the failed jail project. They are weighing the viability of building out the half-finished project on Gratiot or transforming a closed state prison on Mound Road into a new jail.
“Now there are two viable options: either finish the Gratiot site or we’re going to go to Mound,” Ficano said. “But there is a jail that’s going to be built.”
The incumbent should not be discounted, one political observer said.
“(Ficano’s) not giving up. He’s spending money. He’s raising money,” said Ed Sarpolus of Target Insyght in Lansing. “He’s hoping the vote becomes divided enough for him to sneak through.”
Lesser-known candidates in the Democratic contest are former state Rep. Bettie Cook Scott of Detroit; Adam Salam Adamski of Wayne; Cindy Darrah of Detroit; Russell George Leviska of Westland; John Szczepkowski of Detroit; and Christopher Wojtowicz of Hamtramck.
The Republican primary candidates are Fred A. Bolden of Detroit; John Dalton of Livonia, and Daniel K. Wenderlich of Livonia.