Mayoral Messes

The embarrassing Kwame Kilpatrick scandal puts his administration in a dim light, but other Detroit mayors made some blunders, too


The text-messaging/cover-up scandal in Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration is disgraceful, and could well go down in Detroit mayoral history as the most ignoble. Still, Kilpatrick doesn’t have a monopoly on mayoral missteps. Following are some dishonors by Hizzoners from Detroit’s past. Several were miscalculations, a few immoral, others sins of omission — and some were downright criminal.

• Charles Bowles’ reign (1930) lasted a mere seven months after a recall by Detroit voters tossed him out of office. Bowles did little to contain widespread violence by the Purple and Licavoli gangs (a charge also applicable to his predecessors, John C. Lodge and John Smith), and his economic ideas to aid a Depression-battered city were useless. He also had the support of the Ku Klux Klan, not exactly a boon in a town heavily populated by immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans.

• Richard Reading (1938-1940) was as crooked as the lines on a polygraph, conspiring with dozens of corrupt cops to protect the city’s numbers racket. He was thrown  in the slammer, before proclaiming that his sentence was “the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Christ.” Barabbas couldn’t have said it better.

• Albert Cobo (1950-57) Sure, he helped invigorate downtown Detroit with the Civic Center, but he also expanded the freeway system, which tore up many fine neighborhoods and displaced citizens. Ironically, the freeways helped drive people out of Detroit and into the suburbs. Also, under Cobo’s watch, the efficient streetcar system came to a halt. And, during the ’50s, Detroit’s population hemorrhaged mightily; about 180,000 residents left the city during the decade, an exodus Cobo did nothing to stem.

• Louis Miriani (1957-62) For a mayor who ran on a law-and-order platform, Miriani didn’t have much use for annoying little legal matters like paying taxes. After serving as mayor, he returned to the Detroit Common Council, but the IRS had caught up with him. He was convicted of failing to report more than $250,000 in income and was kicked into the clink for 294 days.

• Jerome Cavanagh (1962-70) was essentially a good leader, albeit sometimes naïve, but one of his first deeds as mayor — instituting a city income tax — was a blunder. Cavanagh inherited a financial mess, but there are other ways to raise revenue. The income tax is decried to this day.

• Roman S. Gribbs (1970-74) wasn’t a bad mayor, but his support of STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), an undercover operation by the Detroit Police Department, was a misguided attempt to clean up crime. Instead, trigger-happy cops killed several citizens, most of whom were black. It was especially unfortunate during a time of wretched race relations in the city.

• Coleman A. Young (1974-1993) The surest sign of a healthy city is its vibrant neighborhoods. Detroit didn’t have a whole lot of them during Young’s tenure, but Poletown was one. Young approved the demolition of the neighborhood to make way for a GM plant. Young also never knew when to keep his piehole shut. In calling President Ronald Reagan “pruneface,” Young no doubt cost the city much-needed federal funds. And when the old rooster got Annivory Calvert preggers, she had to file a paternity suit against him.

• Dennis Archer (1993-2001) Admittedly, Archer was successful at drawing business downtown and getting new stadiums built. But neighborhoods didn’t fare as well. City services were bad and worsened under him. The negligence came at a time when many people were trying to justify living in the city while streetlights didn’t work and snowy streets went unplowed.
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