His Best Shot

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing reflects on four years of trying to fix a broken city — from dealings with City Council, the emergency manager, bankruptcy, and more

This past summer, the New York Times Magazine asked Boston Mayor Thomas Menino what U.S. cities besides his own he would want to live in. Shockingly, he answered he’d like to go to Detroit.

Then he explained why. “I’d blow up the place and start all over. No, seriously, when it takes a police officer 90 minutes to answer a call, there’s something wrong with the system. Forty percent of the streetlights are out, most of the buildings are boarded up. Why? Inaction, that’s the problem — leadership.”

The scathing indictment from a fellow big-city mayor reverberated off Old North Church in Boston directly into the airy 11th-floor suite at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, where Dave Bing may be outgoing — and, some would say, out of power — but not out of touch.

Misinformed cheap shots at Detroit are one thing; if Bing responded to each of those, he’d need to clone himself. Menino’s putdown, however, was a direct slap at Bing and his administration after four years spent tirelessly attempting to repair a broken city. His response was swift, pointed, and played on the same national stage as Menino’s.

“I said it was unfortunate he chose to use those words, ‘blow up,’ based upon what happened in Boston [the Boston Marathon bombings just months earlier],” says Bing, reclining in a chair next to a small billboard mockup on his desk featuring his image and the words I’m a believer — are you? “I was dismayed he didn’t get his facts right before speaking to the Times. Our response time has never been 90 minutes, and all our buildings are not boarded up.

“And I invited him to come to Detroit and see for himself. He had people from Boston calling to apologize for him.”

The takeaway: Mess with Dave Bing at your peril. Don’t fall into the trap of mistaking his measured demeanor for weakness. Or don’t you remember his playing days? Over nine seasons as the Pistons’ star guard, many nights he was all the team had. Never flashy, loud, or vainglorious, he was smooth personified, a silent assassin; after a game the sports headlines would blare “Bing Bangs for 40” and you’d wonder, “Him? How?” He wasn’t named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history by standing on the sidelines.

Photographs by Cybelle Codish

Ironically, Bing ended his career in Boston, a city he loved, playing one season for the Celtics. He’s a Washington, D.C., native, and home is special. But he chose to stay and work in Detroit. Here we have a good man, an unqualified success in every endeavor he’s attempted, who opted to run for mayor in the shadow of the worst political scandal in modern Detroit history. He surely didn’t need to do it. Just as surely, Bing was no politician: Karen Dumas,  his former chief communications officer, was quoted in Hour Detroit suggesting Bing’s biggest problem was “he’s too nice. [People] see the fact that he’s nice and trustworthy and they exploit his trust.”

History undoubtedly will brand him as the man who stood watch over the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, the mayor whose authority was usurped by the state-appointed Emergency Manager (EM), Kevyn Orr, an outsider mandated to rescue Detroit from insolvency no matter the cost. The label is unfair but accurate.

Bing, who turns 70 this month, elected not to run for a second term. Not because of his health, although a perforated intestine suffered during a routine colonoscopy last year and the resultant pulmonary embolism in both lungs could have killed him. “I feel great, no problems at all,” he says. “But I won’t go back to that doctor again.” And he’s leaving not necessarily because of Orr and the stranglehold he has on the Mayor’s Office and the Detroit City Council. It was just time. “I made the right decision for me not to run again,” Bing says. “No doubt in my mind.”

Yet the doom-and-devastation headlines overshadowed his administration’s positive accomplishments, and Bing’s personality is not conducive to tooting his own horn. Nonetheless, he is proud of the strides he made in moving his city forward.

“When I came into office, the scary thing was that General Motors was ready to leave its Detroit headquarters, and that would’ve been a huge black eye,” Bing says. “So I worked hard, and I came from that industry so I knew the leadership, and we convinced GM to stay. Then it was Cobo. We were paying around $20 million a year out of our general fund to fund it. So we created a regional authority and everybody was, ‘You’re selling out,’ ‘You’re letting another prized possession go.’

“Now go down to Cobo and see the investment, $343 million in upgrades. We were about to lose the North American International Auto Show because the facility was horrendous and the costs prohibitive. We just signed a five-year extension, Cobo will be completely finished by next year, and everybody is raving about it. All over the globe, all of these suppliers are coming back. Detroit and Cobo are on the map again.”

In the ruins of the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, Bing had to build a new management team from scratch. “It took me a while, but we assembled really good folks who are compassionate and committed, and I don’t think they’ve gotten the recognition that they should have,” he says. “That bothers me more than anything, quite frankly, because I got people who came here from outside government, left the private sector. They took 20 percent pay cuts, paid 30 percent for their health care. But they remained here and worked hard and we accomplished a lot. But we’ve not been the type of team that says, ‘Look at what we done.’ It’s more like, we were supposed to do this. This is our calling.”

Under the umbrella “Transforming Detroit,” Bing’s team focused on five key concerns: transportation, lighting, neighborhood blight, recreation, and public safety. Within those silos, he and his team have opened 14 police mini-stations; created the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit and replaced thousands of streetlights; secured $31 million in federal funds for a Regional Transportation Authority and a rail system along Woodward Avenue; kept all of Detroit’s 17 recreation centers and 300 parks open; reopened the Belle Isle Aquarium; and demolished thousands of abandoned homes and the public eyesore that was the Brewster-Douglass projects. Time and again, Bing secured private funding for projects the city’s budget couldn’t begin to accommodate.

He has every reason to be proudest of the gleaming new $60 million, state-of-the-art Public Safety Headquarters that opened in June on the massive site of the original MGM Grand Casino. “For 40 years we’ve been talking about a new headquarters, and the three administrations prior to me all said they wanted to do it, but they never did,” Bing notes. “We took an old building, made a huge investment, and consolidated not only police and fire but EMS, Homeland Security, IT, the Detroit Building Authority. So it’s a kind of one-stop shop for our citizens. We’ve got to figure out what to do with the old headquarters, but the old firehouse has already been sold to a Chicago developer who’s going to put a boutique hotel and a restaurant there.”

And the new HQ will have 15 new police squad cars and 10 new EMS ambulances, thanks to an $8 million donation Bing solicited from Detroit’s business community.

Now that his time is short, his shots are falling. In his final State of the City address, Bing intimated that the same state government that appointed an emergency manager was the cause of many of the city’s financial woes. “I still believe that,” he says. “The state had a responsibility to hold the city harmless at a level of revenue sharing, which was the big support system we got from the state. This is going all the way back to the Archer administration. And the state backed off and reneged on the agreement they had to hold the city stable with revenue sharing.”

As to the notorious Detroit City Council? “In Detroit, we call City Council ‘mini-mayors,’ ” says Bing. “They want to do the mayor’s job, but they’re the legislative branch. If anybody was to look back over the last four years and see what significant legislation has been passed by City Council, you’d be hard-pressed. Too often we got into disagreements. Everything we did, it seemed, was a fight. And I think the citizens and the business community got tired of that. I thought we would be able to work better together, but there were just way too many hidden agendas. Because of that, we didn’t get as much done as we could have. And I think the same is true right now with the emergency manager.”

Ah, yes, the EM. Both Benny Napoleon and Mike Duggan, the two men campaigning to assume Bing’s chair, have been telling voters how they would deal with Orr if elected. “You know, it’s unfortunate,” Bing muses. “Because they’re running, they’re trying to get people engaged behind ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’ If you haven’t sat in this seat, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

“I think bankruptcy, though none of us wanted it, is probably the best thing to get some of the debt off of our balance sheet,” he says. “I didn’t have the power to do that without bankruptcy. With an EM coming in, with the legislative powers provided by Lansing, it gave him a lot of tools I didn’t have. So I’ve been very quiet about this purposely, because I think the worst thing I could do would be to let my ego get in the way. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with me. Let the emergency manager do what he does best, let him go out here, and in the end we will be a stronger city because of it.”

Bing supported Napoleon, the Wayne County sheriff, but that was before Duggan, for whom he sat on the Detroit Medical Center Board of Directors when Duggan was CEO, achieved a long-shot write-in campaign victory in Detroit’s mayoral primary in August. “I have mixed reactions,” Bing admits. “People ask me, ‘Who are you going to endorse?’ I’m not sure now that I’m going to endorse anybody. I believe in competition. Right now Duggan seems to be the stronger candidate, but we’re waiting to see what Benny is going to do. What’s his offense?”