Detroit’s Three-Term Mayor : COLEMAN YOUNG & DETROIT POLITICS From Social Activist to Power Broker<i> by Wilbur Rich (Wayne State University Press: $21.95; 295 pp.; illustrated; 0-8143-2093-7)</i>


Coleman Young, mayor of Detroit, cut his eye teeth in the ranks of progressive black politics and the labor movement. After winning a seat in the Michigan Senate, he ran for mayor in 1973 and won, becoming the first black mayor of this northern industrial city. He has been re-elected three times, becoming the city’s longest-serving mayor. Now the 70-year-old Young is in the running in an election this fall for an unprecedented fifth term.

Along the way, Young confronted the complexities of downtown-versus-neighborhood development, tax increases and union wage concessions to avoid New York-style bankruptcy, the threat of car manufacturers and professional sports teams pulling out of the city, reigning in a brutal police department, deploying affirmative action.

Wilbur Rich’s book is a description of the interrelation between this complex man and these complex problems. Rich takes a case study approach, building up--issue by issue, election by election and crisis by crisis--the argument that Young has succeeded by taking risks, successfully managing policies and agendas, overcoming many crises and keeping his vision.


Rich’s approach is studious, careful, even plodding. He acknowledges near the end of the book that the work “relied heavily on interviews, newspapers, and published data,” and that it did not benefit from observation from within the inner circle. More damaging is that Rich’s perspective allows for almost no description of the force of personalities on policies, constituencies and events.

This book, like many others on urban politics, treats the business community with kid gloves. In one revealing passage that tells where one form of power lies, Rich describes how black elected officials are often demeaned in their relations with business leaders:

“For black politicians, the politics of economic growth amount to finding ways to enlist white entrepreneurs’ investments and means to reassure them that their properties will be protected. This is a process like clearing the underbrush--the tangles and thickets of mutual misunderstandings and neglect on both sides. In this endeavor the mayor must be point man.”

For example, Rich says the leaders of General Motors took advantage of a so-called “tax abatement” law designed to encourage the company not to relocate a plant outside of the city. Rich says the law means GM “will not be paying taxes to the city (or any other local taxes) for this site until around the year 2000.” GM does not seem to be concerned about the impact of such a law on citizens’ taxes.

Indeed, big-city mayors across the country have to confront the issues of the power of economic interests, the decentralization of political power into regional agencies, the shrinking of their tax base, and the “edge city” phenomenon (in which large cities face not only loss of population to suburbs but real head-to-head economic competition from smaller cities, such as that between San Jose and San Francisco).

But according to Rich, Young has not had to confront many of these issues: “Unlike many large cities . . . power (in Detroit) is not dispersed across city agencies, nor have local politicians been undercut by excessive state interference.”


Any mayor has an obligation to assure that communities are treated fairly. In Detroit’s case, an additional incentive to neighborhood equity is the 1973 version of the city charter, which “consolidated control in the mayor’s office,” Rich says. With this moral obligation and with this legal foundation as his starting points, I contend that Young has a great opportunity to make improvements in the black community equaling what he did for downtown and for financial interests.

Perhaps one true test of how this will play itself out will come when blacks in the neighborhood can say: “My mayor has taken real leadership on the issue of jobs, and now, on this issue, my neighborhood is as good as everybody else’s.” In this quote you can substitute for the word jobs any of the words schools/housing/health care/transportation/quality of life.

With the persistence of racism, and with most cities not having the centralization of power of Detroit, I believe the lesson for black communities in cities with black mayors is that the impetus for real change will come from the same place it has so often come from in the past--from the Fannie Lou Hamers and the student sit-ins--people and movements outside of the traditional channels of power.

Unfortunately, Rich does not begin to grapple with these possibilities as solution to urban ills. He is good at manipulating the nuts and bolts of how a mayor manages Detroit, and at describing the pattern these nuts and bolts form, but Rich never steps back to see what it is he himself has built.

Rich never really addresses, for example, the lessons of Detroit for other cities, relations between Detroit and its metropolitan area or between Detroit and the federal government, or issues that may be on the horizon--gentrification, new immigrants, the waning power of labor unions, foreign ownership of the city’s financial institutions.

Indeed, on the last page of the last chapter of the book, Rich challenges others who may want to succeed Young as mayor to “study his vision of the city before they articulate their own.” One of the great disappointments in Rich’s book is that he so seldom looks up to articulate his own.