2019 in review: Corruption, legal pot and ooze
With 2019 came new revelations of corruption involving top leadership of the United Auto Workers, a 40-day strike for General Motors workers and merger plans for Fiat Chrysler that will make the new automaker the world's fourth largest.
The year brought controversy for Detroit over a policy for facial recognition software used in crime-fighting and a proposed $250 million ballot measure to help the city wipe out blight. The Duggan administration's dealings with a nonprofit also became a source of contention and the subject of city and state investigations.
The battleground state was the site of a rally by President Donald Trump and debates for candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election.
Recreational marijuana became legal, Detroit hosted its first PGA Tour and two of the country's longest-serving congressmen were laid to rest.
Here is a look back at some of the local news stories with the greatest impact throughout the year:
UAW corruption probe continues
It’s been more than two years since The Detroit News first reported that the federal government is investigating the United Auto Workers union for corruption, and 2019 brought more charges and convictions for officials tied to one of the nation’s largest unions.
The ongoing investigation has so far resulted in charges against 13 people and convictions for 11 of them. The federal government raided several locations around the United States in August, including the home of former UAW President Dennis Williams and then-sitting President Gary Jones.
The Detroit News reported in October that Jones and Williams were unnamed officials in court filings accused of embezzlement and using member dues to pay for booze, cigars and lavish trips to Palm Springs, California. Jones stepped down as president in late November.
The UAW has since appointed Rory Gamble as president. Officials in December disbanded the region Jones formerly ran, and it put new protocols in place to manage finances and ethics. Federal officials have said they’re only roughly halfway through investigating the union, and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider told The News that federal oversight of the UAW is an option once government investigators determine the depths of corruption.
Strike costs GM $3 billion
On Sept. 15, the United Auto Workers called for a national strike against General Motors Co., leading nearly 50,000 GM employees at 55 U.S. facilities to picket lines across the U.S. Wages, retention of health care benefits and a path for temporary workers to make it to full-time permanent status were some of the top union issues. The UAW was also fighting for job security and to keep open four facilities GM planned to idle.
Once the UAW/GM members approved the deal on Oct. 25, the national strike ended 40 days after it started. Workers got to keep their health care benefits, saw wage increases and were given a record high sign-on bonus of $11,000. GM was allowed to close four plants: Lordstown Assembly in Ohio; Warren Transmission in Warren; Baltimore Operations in Baltimore; and a parts-processing facility in California.
The national strike was the longest against GM since 1970, which lasted 67 days. GM said it lost $3 billion during the work stoppage.
Fiat Chrysler merger with PSA Peugeot
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV on Oct. 30 revealed it was in talks to merge with French automaker Groupe PSA of the Peugeot brand, a proposal the companies made formal a day later in a statement that outlined a 50-50 stock split for the new entity.
With PSA CEO Carlos Tavares poised to lead the new automaker that would be the fourth largest in the world, surpassing General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., PSA would have a 6-5 advantage in nominating board seats. Fiat Chrysler Chairman John Elkann, scion of the Fiat founding family, would continue in his role.
The Dutch-domiciled company would retain major operations in Auburn Hills, Paris and Turin, Italy.
The companies have said the merger would allow them to leverage their strengths in Europe, North America and South America. They intend to build the volume and to combine vehicle platforms to save on costs without shuttering plants or cutting brands. Fiat Chrysler, which experts say is behind its competition in electric and self-driving technology, will be able to take advantage of PSA’s electric and mobility platforms.
A binding agreement was signed Dec. 18; obtaining regulatory and shareholder approval is expected to take up to 15 months. No name has been announced for the combined company.
Trump rallies in Michigan amid impeachment vote, Dems debate
President Donald Trump held a December campaign rally at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek as the U.S. House cast historic votes to impeach him. Trump, during a Christmas-themed rally on Dec. 18, called the Democrats' push to impeach him a "political suicide march." He slammed the media, his political opponents and touted his efforts to improve the state's economy.
But the most memorable moment might have been when Trump took a poke at the late U.S. Rep John Dingell Jr., suggesting the longtime Catholic and Dearborn Democrat might be in hell, prompting bipartisan outrage.
Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump aides made December appearances in Michigan, too. Pence opened up for Trump after holding some rallies of his own earlier that day. The attention to Michigan marks the importance of the battleground state in the 2020 presidential race. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in the 2016 election.
The Democratic Party recognized Michigan's importance as a key battleground in the 2020 presidential race by having the second round of presidential debates in Detroit. In July, 20 Democrats vying for the nomination took part in a round of debates held over two days at Detroit's Fox Theatre.
The debates featured jabs about "taxing the hell" out of the rich to Medicare for All being "a bunch of malarkey" to Kool-Aid and Clorox.
Whitmer, lawmakers battle over state budget
In her first year, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tussled with the GOP-led Legislature over road funding and the budget during an eventful first year in office amid divided government.
After GOP lawmakers panned Whitmer’s call for a 45-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to fund roads, the executive and legislative branches debated over the fiscal year budget and the inclusion of one-time road funding for fixes considered unsustainable without new revenue.
After weeks of stalemate, Whitmer vetoed $947 million from the Legislature’s budget and transferred another $625 million. Lawmakers and Whitmer spent two and a half months debating the cuts before restoring some funding in mid-December.
But it wasn’t all discord among lawmakers and the governor in 2019. The Legislature and executive branch also passed historic reforms to Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance and collaborated on several initiatives to reform the criminal justice system.
Deaths of longest-serving Michigan congressmen
Dingell, who died Feb. 7 at the age of 92, was a champion of the auto industry, health care access and environmental and energy laws while he served in Congress. After leaving Congress in 2015, Dingell was known as “Dean of Twitter” for his witty, acerbic posts on the social media platform, where he had more than 258,000 followers. His wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, has served in the 12th District since 2015.
Conyers, who died Oct. 27 at the age of 90, served 53 years in the U.S. House, the longest-serving African American member of Congress in U.S. history.
He was a champion of civil and human rights and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Conyers was the top Democrat in the House Judiciary Committee for years and sat on the panel in 1974 as it investigated President Richard Nixon.
Duggan administration faces scrutiny over treatment of nonprofit
Mayor Mike Duggan's administration came under fire amid claims it gave favor to Make Your Date, a nonprofit headed by a woman linked to the mayor, and that city aides directed staff to delete emails pertaining to associated fundraising efforts.
The city's Office of Inspector General launched a review in April to determine whether Duggan and city officials potentially "abused their authority" by providing preferential treatment to the program run by Wayne State University. Inspector General Ellen Ha released the findings of her six-month probe in October, concluding the mayor "unilaterally" directed city resources toward assisting Make Your Date. The mayor and Detroit's top attorney have said that Ha's review found no city rules or policies were broken by mayoral aides who directed the emails be deleted.
Meanwhile, an audit by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flagged documentation worries for Motor City Match, a program touted by Duggan to aid entrepreneurs. And a critical audit of the lack of controls for city-funded demolitions was released just ahead of a vote by Detroit's City Council on the mayor's proposal to put a $250 million bond before voters in March to help fund residential demolition work. The controversial proposal was debated by council for weeks and voted down by a 6-3 vote last month, a day after a packed public hearing.
Facial recognition policy sparks controversy
Detroit police Chief James Craig in June asked the city's police board to approve a policy governing the use of facial recognition technology, sparking protests and concern from residents and civil rights advocates over privacy and worries the technology has misidentified a disproportionate number of dark-skinned people.
The department first began using facial recognition software in 2017 after the City Council approved a $1 million purchase of the software, although a formal policy hadn't yet been drafted, and the Police Department used the technology under standard operating procedures.
The controversy led to Detroit police commissioner Willie Burton's arrest at the July 11 board meeting, after he’d complained for weeks about the technology, although his arrest came during a ceremony honoring citizen volunteers.
When U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, toured the Real Time Crime Center on Sept. 30, she sparked another firestorm when she told Craig he should only employ black crime analysts, because, she said, “non-African Americans think African Americans all look the same.”
The police board approved the policy in September.
Drivers shut down Lodge Freeway, I-94 to do 'donuts '
Two brazen shutdowns of major freeways brought traffic to a standstill as bystanders filmed drivers doing 360-degree "donuts" and posted the footage on social media.
On June 28, six vehicles were involved in an incident on the Lodge Freeway. The video, posted on YouTube, shows cars backed up behind parked vehicles, while another spins with its tires screeching as a woman filming yells, "we on the Lodge wit it." The driver was later arrested by police.
On Dec. 22, a similar scenario unfolded when drivers blocked all lanes of westbound Interstate 94. That's when an Allen Park man was allegedly videotaped doing "donuts" in an orange 2010 Chevy Camaro with tinted windows.
A video of the "sideshow" stunt was posted on Instagram, showing several people recording the Camaro doing circles across all lanes of I-94 near Trumbull, while cars were backed up behind parked vehicles. A man filming is heard saying "we on 94 wit it, baby."
The Lodge incident prompted some entrepreneurs to cash in, selling "we on the Lodge wit it" T-shirts, and inspired a song by rapper GmacCash.
Detroit lands Fiat Chrysler plant
In May, the Detroit City Council and the Michigan Strategic Fund gave the green light for Fiat Chrysler to construct what will be the first automotive plant built in the city in 30 years.
Construction is underway in the automaker’s plan to invest $1.6 billion in expanding its Mack Avenue facilities with a new plant and $900 million to modernize its Jefferson North Assembly Plant for production of the next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as an all-new, three-row full-size Jeep SUV and plug-in hybrid models. The company plans to introduce vehicles from the new assembly plant by late 2020. The expansion is expected to add 4,950 jobs. As part of a community benefits agreement with the city, FCA promised to give Detroit residents priority in the application process.
The city acquired the 215 acres for FCA for more than $48 million under a tight deadline. The city and the Michigan Strategic Fund also granted FCA an incentive package totaling $223 million to offset the cost of the Mack expansion and $900 million in modernization efforts at Jefferson North. And the state provided the city of Detroit $93 million to offset costs associated with site preparation.
New era in Oakland County
Longtime county fixture L. Brooks Patterson died Aug. 3 of pancreatic cancer, ending the Republican's 27-year tenure as Oakland County executive and opening the door to Democratic control of Michigan’s second-largest county. Patterson, 80, had been one of Michigan’s most influential and controversial politicians for nearly half a century, leading opposition to court-ordered busing to desegregate Pontiac schools in the 1970s and presiding over decades of job and population growth as county executive.
Days after the Republican's death, Democrat Dave Woodward resigned as chairman of the county Board of Commissioners to become a candidate for the executive’s job, only to reverse himself the next week, resuming his seat and providing the deciding vote to appoint Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter, also a Democrat, as Patterson’s successor. Republicans cried foul and sued to overturn Coulter’s appointment, but a circuit court judge upheld the vote in a Dec. 4 decision. Coulter announced plans to run for a full term in 2020, as did fellow Democrat Andy Meisner, the county treasurer.
Blaze strains energy supply
A fire Jan. 30 at a Consumers Energy compressor station in Macomb County strained the supply of natural gas for homes and businesses during a record cold snap and exposed vulnerabilities in the system that supplies 4.1 million Michiganians.
The blaze crippled the utility's Armada Township facility, which supplies 64% of Consumers' natural gas, leading the company to ask some large industrial customers to shut down and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ask residents to turn down their thermostats to preserve a suddenly constricted supply.
In September, the state Public Service Commission outlined steps aimed at making Michigan’s energy system more resilient.
Chemical oozes onto 696, into storm sewer
On Dec. 20, the liquid seeped onto eastbound Interstate 696 in Madison Heights and into a storm sewer.
Tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of water in storm sewers near the shuttered Electro-Plating Services facility on 10 Mile, where the chemical seeped from the basement, revealed high levels of the cancer-causing substance hexavalent chromium. But officials with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said there is "no threat to drinking water or air quality."
Last month, the former company was ordered to pay $1.5 million and its owner received one year in prison for illegally storing hazardous waste. In 2016, inspectors found about 5,000 containers of hazardous waste there. A $2 million cleanup began in June 2017.
Macomb County Public Works Director Candice Miller has described the toxic waste linked to the business as “life-threatening and terrifying.”
Recreational pot is legalized
Nearly a year after the use of recreational marijuana for adults above 21 years of age became legal in Michigan by referendum vote, the sale here of the adult-use drug began in December.
Visitors from across the state, Midwest and as far away as New York lined up outside retailers mostly in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1 to participate in the historic occasion. Sales from the inaugural week topped $1.6 million, contributing more than $270,000 in taxes from a 10% excise tax and 6% sales tax.
Retailers could transfer up to half of their medical marijuana inventory they have had on hand for at least 30 days to sell for recreational use; processors and cultivators also could transfer half of their stock. With demand so high, however, some retailers sold out of adult-use flower two days after launching. Some in the industry remain concerned that taking supply from the medical market is increasing prices and limiting access.
As of Dec. 30, there were 26 marijuana retailers, five processors and six growers with recreational licenses. Sales now total $6.5 million, with nearly $1.1 million going to taxes.
MSU upheaval continues
At Michigan State University, 2019 was marked by two leadership changes and continuing turmoil over the school’s handling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. In January, interim President John Engler resigned amidst an uproar over his comment in a Detroit News interview referring to some Nassar victims “in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times.”
Engler was replaced by Satish Udpa, the university’s executive vice president for administration, who served as interim president until Aug. 1. That's when Samuel Stanley, who had been the top official at Stony Brook University in New York, took office as MSU’s 21st president. Stanley faced fresh controversy over the Nassar scandal, as four members of the Board of Trustees refused in September to authorize the release of 6,000 emails sought by state investigators. The next month, Nancy Schlichting quit the board in protest after 10 months as a trustee, and her successor, Renee Knake, joined four other trustees Dec. 13 in voting to review the documents themselves for possible release.
Board split roils Wayne State
MSU wasn’t the only Michigan university to deal with controversy and division in 2019. At Wayne State University, a split on the Board of Governors deepened as the year went on.
In February, a four-member bloc killed plans to make Henry Ford Health System the university’s main medical partner. The next month, Governor Dana Thompson called for President M. Roy Wilson to resign, accusing him of “a lack of transparency and accountability.”
At a June meeting, with all four of the anti-Wilson members absent, the remaining governors declared Wilson an ex-officio member to establish a quorum and proceeded to raise tuition and approve a controversial real estate deal, leading Thompson and governors Michael Busuito, Sandra Hughes O’Brien and Anil Kumar to sue their colleagues, alleging the votes taken at the session were invalid.
In November, those four governors voted at an executive committee meeting to fire Wilson, an action the state Attorney General’s Office said was not taken at a formal board session, keeping him in office.
Stroke sidelines Dan Gilbert
Billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert, a Detroit booster and significant owner of downtown real estate, has been sidelined since spring after suffering a stroke. Gilbert, 57, fell ill on May 26, soon after he launched a ballot drive committee to propel Michigan auto insurance reform and as his Rocket Mortgage prepared to host its first PGA Tour in Detroit.
The Quicken Loans chairman and Cleveland Cavaliers owner has rarely been seen publicly since his stroke on Memorial Day weekend. Most recently, he was spotted this month in the crowd during the Menorah in the D event, sponsored by the Gilbert Foundation, in the city's Cadillac Square Park. In August, Gilbert appeared in a video message emailed to employees.
The Franklin resident was released from Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak in June and transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. He returned home in August to continue his recovery.
Sasha Obama starts college career at UM
Former President Barack Obama's youngest daughter, Sasha, began her college career at the University of Michigan in September.
Sasha, whose legal name is Natasha, created a buzz on campus after being spotted at freshman orientation, the undergraduate library, and with men believed to be Secret Service agents.
The youngest Obama daughter is the first in her immediate family to attend a public Big Ten university, rather than seeking an Ivy League education. Her sister, Malia Obama, took a gap year in 2016 before enrolling at Harvard University, where her parents attended law school. Barack Obama attended Columbia University in New York City for his undergraduate studies. Former first lady Michelle Obama earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in New Jersey.
Hot cars unveiled
The Detroit Three automakers all braved a changing global market in 2019, but some still managed to introduce ground-breaking products this year set to debut in the new year.
After years of teasing, General Motors Co. confirmed in July that the 2020 Corvette would debut as a mid-engine model capable of a zero-60 mph in 3 seconds, and cost less than $60,000. Carrying the legendary “Stingray” badge, the new sports car is expected to hit roads in March.
Meantime, Ford Motor Co. introduced a new kind of muscle late in the year. Ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show, the automaker debuted its Mustang Mach-E, the first-ever four-door, electric Mustang. The vehicle is billed as a fast, tech-packed step into electric vehicles as Ford plans to debut more of the zero-emission vehicles over the next decade. The vehicle is expected to debut at the end of 2020, but Ford started taking orders for the vehicles the night it made its global debut.
Detroit's first PGA Tour
The inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, the PGA Tour’s first-ever stop in Detroit, didn’t bring out all the biggest names in golf, but it brought out a lot of birdies and a whole lot of fans — tens of thousands of the latter — leading to even greater expectations for Year 2 in 2020.
The first RMC also lent itself to an underdog champion, Nate Lashley, who secured his first PGA Tour win, jumpstarting a career and life that’s been touched by unthinkable tragedy. In 2004, both of his parents and his girlfriend were killed in a plane crash. He persevered and now is an unofficial son of Detroit, planning to return as long as the city hosts the RMC, which, given the early successes, could be for decades.
Michigan State makes Final Four
Michigan State spent the regular season overcoming obstacles to win its second straight Big Ten championship and followed the same path to a spot in the Final Four.
Overcoming the early departure to the NBA of stars Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, as well as injuries to starters Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, the Spartans managed to win their 10th conference title under coach Tom Izzo behind the emergence of guard Cassius Winston.
The Detroit native was named the Big Ten Player of the Year and continued his outstanding play in the postseason as Michigan State beat Michigan for the third time in three weeks to capture the Big Ten tournament championship. The Spartans carried that momentum into the NCAA Tournament by beating top overall seed Duke in the regional championship to earn their 10th Final Four appearance and eighth under Izzo. The season came to an abrupt end, however, with a loss to Texas Tech in the national semifinals.
Steve Yzerman named GM for Wings
The Captain returned to Detroit — and Red Wings fans couldn’t have been more excited. Steve Yzerman, who led the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame playing career, returned to the organization he helped rebuild as a player. This time he took control of the organization not on the ice, but in the front office, as the Red Wings’ new general manager, replacing Ken Holland.
Yzerman, who wore No. 19 as a player, returned on the 19th day of April in the year of 2019. He had been GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning for nine seasons. And while Yzerman fell short of leading the Lightning to a Stanley Cup championship, his record in Tampa Bay gives Red Wings fans hopes that brighter days are ahead in Detroit.
Kid Rock's arena restaurant out after rant
Things between Michigan musician Kid Rock and activists came to a head in December when the Ilitch organization announced that his Made in Detroit restaurant at Little Caesars Arena would close in April. At the same time, profane comments that he made about Oprah Winfrey and others prompted protesters to gather outside his restaurant with calls to “mute Kid Rock now.”
Both The Detroit News editorial board and entertainment columnist Adam Graham agreed that his recent behavior and politics were overshadowing his music and it wasn’t a good look.
Kanye West 'Sunday Service' concerts
Music superstar Kanye West brought Sunday Service to Detroit on a Friday afternoon in September at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit. Details of the concert were revealed earlier that week and the free tickets went fast.
Shortly after wrapping up the daytime performance, which was attended by West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West and their children, the rapper announced he would perform a free Fox Theatre show that night titled “Jesus is King: A Kanye West Experience.”