Howes: 'Old Detroit' habits prove durable in stretch run to political change

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Democratic nominee for governor, Gretchen Whitmer, center, has pledged to repeal Michigan's right-to-work law.

Eight years of economic growth, declining unemployment and the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history should be the makings of a “new” Michigan unhitched from its contentious, anti-business past.

But such a conclusion, popular among Republicans and the Detroit revival crowd, is premature. From the Democratic nominee for governor and City Council to labor unions and neighborhood groups in Corktown, markers of “Old Detroit” are resurfacing with demands that business pay more to do business in a city whose economic reinvention is far from guaranteed.

It shouldn't be surprising in this town. Not when we're in the ninth year of an economic expansion. Not when the stock market is setting record highs, corporate profits are up and a lot of people are making a lot of money in this economy. Nope, it's entirely rational that politicians, labor and neighborhood activists are clamoring for more.

Even if the details of various proposals end up being comparatively benign, the collective backlash emerging this election season suggests there’s still a lot of old Michigan in its newer version — and all of this signals to outsiders, rightly or not, that this corner of the industrial heartland remains the same as it ever was.

Item: Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, polling ahead of her Republican rival Bill Schuette, is pledging to repeal Michigan's right-to-work law, especially if the Democrats manage to somehow gain control of the Legislature, too.

The move would achieve the top priority of organized labor and deal a stinging rebuke to the Republican Party's virulent anti-labor wing concentrated in west Michigan. It also would signal the return of labor to the highest levels of state policy-making and economic development strategy.

Item: City Council's president pro tem, Mary Sheffield, is pushing a package of what she calls "People's Bills." Among other things, they propose to set water rates in the city according to income, not usage; to reduce parking fines and reinstate a 10-day grace period when fines are halved; to lower the threshold for invoking the city's Community Benefits Ordinance to projects of $15 million from $75 million currently.

"I don't think I that I'm driving business away," Sheffield said on WDIV's "Flashpoint" Sunday. "I don't think that the policies I'm putting forward are driving business away. It's about making sure that we invest in people as well. For Detroit to be sustainable, we can't just continue to invest in buildings and development. We have to invest in the people that live in this city."

Item: City Council rejected proposed construction of a second tower for the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Washington Boulevard, citing poor service, meager pay for hotel employees and the owner's unwillingness to formally declare neutrality in any effort by employees to unionize.

The hotel's controlling investor group instead confirmed that it expects to turn its attention to projects in Texas and California, depriving Detroit of a nearly $170 million investment that would have created jobs. The owners were not seeking public subsidies for the project, nor did they seek help from the mayor's office, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Item: A Corktown advisory council issued a series of demands for Ford Motor Co. tied to its planned $740 million renovation of the dilapidated Michigan Central Depot — vacant and crumbling for 30 years — and development of a corporate campus to be integrated into the city's oldest neighborhood.

In exchange for $104 million in tax breaks from the city, the demands include separate $5 million investments into a strategic neighborhood fund and an affordable housing leverage fund; creating a $12 million community-controlled fund that would be available to renters, homeowners and businesses; developing programs to subsidize property tax payments for homeowners and grants for home repair.

Item: A dispute between union road builders and the contractors employing them has halted construction on I-696, I-75 at the Rouge River Bridge and other projects, prompting Gov. Rick Snyder to threaten to deploy the Michigan National Guard to get the project moving. 

This in the state with some of the worst roads in the country, a recurring embarrassment for the place that helped put America on wheels. Worse, the flap bears all the hallmarks of the kind of workplace disagreement that intentionally makes its dysfunction everyone else's problem — a problem bystanders cannot fix.

Detroit is in the throes of a multi-billion-dollar development boom that's making it one of the hottest cities in America. Because of bankruptcy, its debt load is lighter, its bureaucracy is more manageable and its welcome of capital is refreshing.

Until the reality behind that narrative reverses and the bad ol' days of grasping and blaming return, helping pretty much no one.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.