Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cleveland vs. Detroit: What we take for granted

I got back from a weekend in Detroit to see this story, which almost wasn't news: Frank Jackson and Tim Hagan had a nice talk about Cuyahoga County acquiring the convention center site from the city of Cleveland.

Hagan had suggested that the city just deed it over for free. Jackson replied it was a valuable asset, so county should pay for it. But they'll work it out. They had a pleasant chat, and they're confident they'll have a deal by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Detroit may give up ownership of its convention center too -- but only after an ugly, dirty, ridiculous, YouTube-worthy, crazy fight.

Cobo Center is getting old and out of date. Not as far gone as Cleveland's convention center, yet. But it costs $15 million a year for the city to keep up. It will probably lose its biggest event, the North American International Auto Show, if it doesn't undergo a major renovation. But the city can't pay for the work. It's flat broke.

So the state legislature, metro Detroit's three counties, and Detroit's mayor came up with a plan to transfer Cobo Center to a regional authority. But Detroit City Council voted against it. They don't want the center to give up preferential hiring and contracting for Detroiters.

Two councilwomen are playing the race card to attack the plan. Barbara-Rose Collins (whom voters threw out of Congress 13 years ago amid scandal, and who occasionally wears a tiara to council meetings) started ranting about "European rulers" at last week's city council meeting, then sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers"!

They're suing Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr., a good guy who calls for regional and racial cooperation. People outside Detroit who want to help the city are recoiling, appalled.

Compared to Detroit's convention center battle, Cleveland's looks remarkably civilized. That reminds me of a few things about Cleveland politics that we take for granted.

Detroit and Cleveland are very similar -- 1920s boom towns, manufacturing capitals, formerly among the nation's biggest cities, scarred by racial tension, now shrinking from industry's decline. But today, Cleveland rarely sinks into the battles between city and suburb, black and white, that wound Detroit over and over.

It's not that Cleveland is a racial utopia. It's definitely not. (Just look at how often local news stories attract ugly comments from readers with racial grudges.)

But in Cleveland politics, racial divisiveness is ultimately a losing strategy. Leaders who appeal to our better instincts deserve some of the credit. Geography deserves some too -- the simple fact that the Cuyahoga River has been our racial dividing line, not the city limits.

Detroit's racial geography lines up roughly with political boundaries. The famous 8 Mile Road is not just the boundary between Detroit and the suburbs, but between one county and two others. So politicians in Detroit and the suburbs who think along racial lines can play the race card and win re-election. Kwame Kilpatrick, the recently disgraced former Detroit mayor, was infamous for this.

But Cleveland's mayors -- Frank Jackson in 2005, Jane Campbell in 2001, Mike White in 1989 -- win office by attracting votes from black and white and from both sides of town. City council presidents need east-west coalitions to survive. County-wide candidates, too, know a multi-racial coalition is the easiest way to victory.

Just after Frank Jackson was elected, I asked him how he might improve race relations as mayor. Here's what he said:

I don’t think it’s really about improving race relations as much as it is carrying out what you said. If I look at what I do in the city of Cleveland not as black, white or Hispanic, or East Side or West Side, but look at it as doing it for Cleveland, that’s a message from me. If you do not play up the issue of differences or what divides us, then it will tend not to be as prominent.

We're fortunate most of our leaders think like that. I wish more Detroiters did.

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