MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, I know it's still springtime, but today we kick off our summer reading series, with award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead. He talks about his latest work, a coming of age novel set at the beach called, appropriately enough, "Sag Harbor." That's a little later in the program.
But first, former basketball star-turned-businessman Dave Bing takes the wheel in the Motor City. He was elected yesterday in a special runoff election to fill out the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
He defeated city council president and acting Mayor Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. Cockrel inherited the mayor's office for seven months after Kilpatrick went to jail for lying under oath about his sexual affair with his chief of staff. Although the new mayor's term only lasts through the end of the year, he has plenty to do, including tackling $250 million budget deficit, figuring out how to keep the world's largest auto show in Detroit, handling the impact of the auto industry's ongoing problems, and on top of that, deciding whether to stand for a full four-year term in the November election.
Joining us now to talk about all this is Jerome Vaughn. He's the news and program director of member station WDET in Detroit. Also with us to talk about the auto industry angle is Frank Langfitt, who covers work place and labor issues for NPR. Welcome to you both.
JEROME VAUGHN: Hi, Michel.
FRANK LANGFITT: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Frank, I'm going to come to you in just a moment, but we want to spent couple of minutes talking about the election results. Jerome, Dave Bing, he was a legend on the court, seven-time all star, who played primarily for the Detroit Pistons. But that was 30 years ago. So what's he's been doing since then, and what accounts for his victory over Ken Cockrel, Jr.?
VAUGHN: Well, he - after he retired from the NBA, he started working, bought a steel company, started working in that, built that up to something called the Bing Group now, which provides a lot of parts and other bits and pieces for the auto industry. He's really become well known for being a successful businessman here in the city of Detroit, and that's what launched him into the political fray. He thought he had an opportunity to make a difference in the aftermath of Mayor Kilpatrick.
Now he could really bring some of that business sense into city government and make some changes quickly and effectively, and so that's why he decided to run. As far as why he won, you know, he really had a message of change that, you know, it wouldn't be business as usual with him. He could use his business acumen, and people bought in to that a good deal.
MARTIN: Here's Dave Bing at his victory party. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.
Mayor DAVE BING (Detroit, Michigan): I know we all know that change is not going to happen overnight. We didn't get where we are overnight, and we're not going to get in it over night. So what I want to ask you for is just that little bit of patience.
MARTIN: Well, he doesn't have much time. I mean, his term only is about seven-and-half months, and then he's got to decide whether to run in August, I guess, is the primary. Then the general is in November. Do people think he's going to try run for a full four-year term?
VAUGHN: Yes. He said, as of this morning, that he, as of today, intends to run for a full four-year term. Now during the campaign he had said, you know, I want to do one term. I want to be a one-term mayor. In four years, I want to get some key things done, but not have to worry about running again for a second and third term. So, we'll see in a few years if that holds up, if he wins in November. That's one of the interesting things about this - two elections down this year, and two more to go.
MARTIN: Obviously, job creation is a huge issue, the unemployment rate is very high. But Frank Langfitt, I wanted to ask you: Does the mayor of Detroit actually have anything to say, or does he really have any - he or she, if there were a she - any input into the decisions that are facing the auto industry right now?
LANGFITT: Not that I can see. I mean, I suppose there's the bully pulpit. But right now, if you are watch what's happening with General Motors and Chrysler -and this is really striking, and I'm not sure in all of our coverage we've gotten this across to everybody. The White House is driving this as though it is a partner that owns an interest in the companies, which is exactly what's going to happen here if things go as planned.
So to give you an example, when I'm on the phone calls with the Treasury Department at nights before announcements, you hear the people who were on the Auto Task Force saying, yeah, we talked to the bond holders. We told them you're taking this. And so it's really clear this is being entirely driven out of the Department of Treasury and the White House. And then I think anybody beyond that, other than the major stakeholders, is kind of peripheral.
MARTIN: There is some news to report, though, of the changing auto industry.
LANGFITT: There is. You know, last night - this is good news for Chrysler in bankruptcy court. That's not a phrase I expected to be uttering today. But last night, a judge told Chrysler that it could begin to take steps to begin to sell its best assets. And the idea here, as we've reported, is the company wants to sell its plants and products - Jeep, the minivans, Dodge Ram Pick Up - to a new company that would be owned by Fiat, the U.S. Government and the union. Now some creditors - people who've given Chrysler a lot of money - they want to slow the sale down.
They hope that more bidders will come along, maybe they can chop up the company, make some more money. But the judge ruling is really important, because it allows Chrysler now to keep its sales plans on a fast track. And Chrysler really needs to get in and out of the bankruptcy court fast, because the longer it's there, the more likely that customers will look at the company and say: This company is not going to make it, I'm not going to buy its product - and this could all become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
MARTIN: More - I think more to the point for the people of Detroit and everybody else employed by the auto industry: Are they facing yet more job cuts?
LANGFITT: Oh absolutely. Actually, Chrysler's an interesting one. Chrysler did huge cuts before this. So will there be some more cuts? Probably. But they already whacked tens of thousands of jobs in the last two years. It's General Motors where you going to see a lot more job cuts, and let me tell you about that. General Motors wants to cut another 21,000 factory jobs, and it's been making a lot of cuts over the years.
Just - I believe it was on Monday, the union came back and said, you know it's just too much. We're against this plan. And this is a plan that the General Motors has resubmitted to the government, the government has looked at, and it's just a reminder that if you try to get through restructuring these giant industrial companies, you have lots of partners on all sides who can slow things down, who not like what they see, see a real threat to their interests.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the latest news out of Detroit, the latest political news and the latest in the auto industry. We're speaking with Jerome Vaughn of WDET and NPR's labor and work place issues reporter Frank Langfitt. Jerome, what did Dave Bing say during the course of this very short and intense campaign about how he would address unemployment and business issues in Detroit?
VAUGHN: In all honesty, he said very little about what he would do. That's been part of the mystique of Dave Bing is that he touted his experience, but didn't lay out a lot as far as concrete plans for what he would do. You know, he touted the need for transparency and the need for honesty.
A lot of his campaign, he talked about what had happened, you know, previously with Mayor Kilpatrick, as well as Mayor Cockrel to a lesser extent as being a sort of career politician. He touted being an outsider. But as far as having hard and fast concrete ideas of what he was going to do to increase jobs, very little, very little.
MARTIN: It was anticipated that the turnout could be as low, could have been as low as 15 percent, and I don't know whether the overnight showed that that held true. Now, of course, traditionally, special elections have a much lower turnout, just because they're lower visibility, people are not - for whatever reason. But was there, in fact, that low of a turnout? And to what do you attribute it? Were people just - are they just tired of the whole thing? Discouraged.
VAUGHN: It was right around 15 percent, and not so much people were tired of it. I think part of the reason was - excuse me - that there was an understanding that this was an election that was going to take place and that we were going to have another one in August and another one in November. And because of that, people kind of felt like, well, this is a short-term solution, a short-term mayor. I think for that reason, people did not feel like it was the most important thing for them to do. And there was even an article a columnist wrote in the paper: What is it going to take to bring voters out? We've got a $300 million deficit and the schools have a deficit nearly as large as that. There are no jobs to be had. All of these things are coming together. What's it going to take to bring Detroit out?
And, you know, the two candidates, many people said they didn't like either candidate enough to really come out and vote. So we'll see what happens as far as people running in August. Maybe there'll be another candidate who might come out that will generate some more energy and excitement than Mayor Bing and former Mayor Cockrel.
MARTIN: In fairness to Ken Cockrel, did he have any concrete plans for addressing Detroit's unemployment situation and this significant deficit and all that flows from the deficit, all that flows from the economic problems?
VAUGHN: Well, I think he was starting to look at ways to use some of the stimulus money hopefully and try to get a few projects going along that line. But really, the major problems in Detroit that Mayor Cockrel was focusing on, COBO Center, which is the convention center in town. There's been a big battle over what it's going to take to keep the North American International Auto Show in town, how COBO was going to be renovated, who was going to pay for it. That was a big issue.
Crime, always a big issue in Detroit, trying to find a way to get more cops on the street, improve response times, and again the schools. You know, we've got an emergency financial manager appointed by the state to take care of the schools for the next year, and that was really the third of the big issues that Mayor Cockrel had been facing that Mayor Bing will face in the weeks ahead.
MARTIN: Frank, I want to hear more from you when we come back after a short break, but before we go, you spent a lot of time in Detroit this year, reporting. What was the - what's been the mood among autoworkers whom you've interviewed and spent time with?
LANGFITT: I'd say a mixture of resignation, sorrow and frustration. I mean, they're not dumb. They understand their car sales have been completely whacked by the recession, and they also realize they don't have a lot of power. But they also feel that they're treated differently than a lot of other people. Let's take an example, especially the banks and insurance like AIG. Banks, they say, you know, did a much worse job. They're the ones who got the country into this problem, and workers feel like politicians and ordinary Americans are just beating up on the Detroit car business.
The day Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, I was up talking with a guy named Bob Stuglin. He runs a UAW Local 1264 up in Sterling Heights. That's just north of Detroit. And when I was talking to him, here's kind of how he put it.
Mr. BOB STUGLIN (President, UAW Local 1264): When we asked for a loan of $5 billion, $8 billion, it pales in comparison to what the banks have gotten. We will pay this money back. We work hard. If there wasn't unions, we might not have a middleclass in this country. So I guess that's all I want to say. People could put a face on an autoworker. Maybe they can't put a face on an AIG worker, because they don't even know what they do. But don't throw stones at us.
MARTIN: That was one of the autoworkers interviewed by NPR's Frank Langfitt in one of his recent reporting trips to Detroit. We're talking with Frank, and we're talking with WDET's Jerome Vaughn about the challenges facing Detroit, its new Mayor David Bing and also the latest news from the auto industry. We've to take a short break right now, but we're going to continue our conversation about all these issues when we come back in just a few minutes. I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, in our Wisdom Watch conversation, a diva of dance - Renee Robinson of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is with us. That conversation in just a few minutes. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the new mayor of Detroit and that city's future. We're speaking with Jerome Vaughn of member station WDET in Detroit and NPR's Frank Langfitt, who covers labor and workforce issues. Jerome, you mentioned that the North American International Auto Show is threatening to leave Detroit. Why is that, and how significant is that?
VAUGHN: Well, it's a huge deal. What's going on is COBO Center, which is our convention center, is not as large as many other convention centers. It's about a third of the size of the McCormick Place in Chicago. And state lawmakers and Mayor Cockrel and city council were trying to figure out a way to pay for an enlargement of this center. The automakers and the auto dealers say it's not large enough. Well, that deal fell through. It never came together.
It was one of the big issues in the campaign of about it being handled poorly, at least as far as Dave Bing was concerned. And now there's a real question about where the auto show is going to go. Is it going to go to Chicago? Is it going to New York? And also, there's now a plan coming together to try to move it to the suburbs, Detroit's suburbs, which is sort of really a thorn in the side of city residents right now.
MARTIN: And Frank, what are the politics of this for the auto industry? Is this - is there a, say, a symbolic or emotional attachment to Detroit? Or what are the politics of that?
LANGFITT: Absolutely. And Jerome's really right about this. It has a huge symbolic importance to the city. One of the things that's going on also, is I think that there's interest in getting this show out to the West Coast. And there's a lot of politics and business behind that. The West Coast would love to get it, because there is a nascent sort of auto industry that's been springing up there that's green, that's battery powered. They don't have the scale of Detroit, but they'd love to become the new face of the American auto industry.
And, of course, one way to do that would be to get the auto show out there. People in Detroit who are in the auto business have their elbows out on this it. They want to protect this as much as they can. And they know other people out there who are trying to get into the auto business, see this as a chance to kind of steal a big symbol from the city.
MARTIN: According to the Detroit Free Press, that show brings in $500 million annually. That would be a huge deal. So just very briefly in the minute we have left, Frank, what - it's terrible to ask a reporter to guess or to predict, but what's your sense of the way this is going? Would you be surprised if the auto industry did leave Detroit?
LANGFITT: I would - I mean, I think if it actually did leave Detroit, it's - I don't want to say unimaginable, because all we see now are things that we wouldn't have predicted six months ago. But I think it would just be a huge blow, and it would be terrible for the city - I mean, terrible for city's identity, frankly.
MARTIN: Jerome, a final thought from you. What is your sense of the way the winds are blowing?
VAUGHN: Well, everyone understands that there are competitors out there trying to take it. So the state leaders and the city leaders will get together again and try to work something out. Michigan's got a huge budget deficit, though, so there may not be any money to pay for what's needed.
MARTIN: To be continued, clearly. Jerome Vaughn is the news and program director of member station WDET in Detroit. He joined us from the studios there, and Frank Langfitt covers workplace and labor issues for NPR. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.
VAUGHN: Happy to do, Michel.
LANGFITT: My pleasure.