Michigan’s highest-profile mayor, a man who should have known better because — if nothing else — he was a lawyer, for goodness’ sake, had morphed into a poster boy for out-of-control politicians everywhere.
He’d been pilloried after a series of legal entanglements and marital embarrassments. Then, with the threat of jail looming, he mooned the judicial system by visiting Windsor. And finally it came to a hearing that might persuade the governor to oust him from office.
And every bit of it happened 15 years before Kwame Kilpatrick was even born.
Detroit’s troubled mayor spent most of 2008 careening down the kind of slippery slope just described. But while Kilpatrick might take credit for chutzpah in the face of adversity, he gets no points for originality.
The late Orville Hubbard, the notorious and longtime segregationist mayor of Dearborn, did it all first, and became the target of the most byzantine removal hearing in Michigan history. While Kilpatrick navigated the preliminary stages of his ordeal with bravado and phony contrition, Hubbard pirouetted through the entire process with a sense of humor and outrageous panache.
Making national news was nothing new for Hubbard, whose escapades generated headlines throughout his 1942-78 mayoral tenure. But in 1954, he almost had to pay the politician’s ultimate penalty. That’s when Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams considered whether to do what a recall and a grand jury had failed to do: Turn the rascal out.
“They may send me to jail someday for contempt, but they’ll never send me for being a crook,” Hubbard said in answering the grand-jury charges.
Laying the groundwork for his recall, Hubbard lost a lawsuit in 1950 for libeling a local attorney. Refusing to pay his $7,500 fine, he established a “government in exile” at a Windsor hotel, prompting the Detroit Free Press to venture that the mayor’s “idiotic” prank was making Dearborn “the laughingstock of the nation.”
Disappointed recallers got a grand jury established, but Wayne Circuit Judge Miles Culehan declined in 1953 to indict Hubbard on any of the 20 charges, including one that he paved church parking lots. When Culehan asked the governor to take action, Williams appointed Grand Rapids probate Judge Wallace Waalkes Jr., to hear evidence. But, after 17 sessions and 43 witnesses, Waalkes judged only a few charges even worthy of comment — notably, that Hubbard had accepted a television from a furniture store after cutting its tax bill.
Based on Waalkes’ summary, Williams concluded that Hubbard’s “bad judgment and poor policy” didn’t justify overriding the will of the good people of Dearborn. Indeed, they voted Hubbard in for another eight terms, ending only after a 1974 stroke forced him to serve his final years in a wheelchair.
A Detroit Historical Museum exhibit spotlighting 16 Michigan figures, including Orville Hubbard, runs through August 2010. Good, a Dearborn freelancer, is the author of the 1989 Hubbard biography, Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn.