Westland sometimes is in national trivia contests because it was the first city ever named after a shopping mall.
Bill Wild, Westland’s mayor for the last seven years, has been much less well-known. Perhaps until recently, that is; he is now waging a serious campaign to be elected Wayne County executive. That is, to win the Democratic primary August 5, which essentially guarantees victory in the November election.
Wild may still have more money and less name recognition than his four major rivals. But he is running second in some polls, and has one powerful argument.
“I’m the only candidate who actually has executive experience, who has run both a business and a government,” he told me a couple days ago, when I went to see him at his campaign headquarters on the east side of Detroit.
That is somewhat true.
With his father’s help, Wild, now 46, started an automobile recycling business called Scrap Busters when he was 20 years old; today, it has a dozen employees and is thriving.
And Mayor Wild has gotten high marks for his economic stewardship of Westland. Since he took office, the city has cleaned up an old deficit and balanced its budget every year.
Westland has actually maintained its population for the last 40 years, fluctuating between 84-86,000 people. Meanwhile, the county as a whole shrank by 800,000. With auto manufacturing in decline, Bill Wild has helped reposition his city as a restaurant and retail “shop and dine” center.
That economic record has won him the endorsement of the Detroit News, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and Bill Ford Jr., the chair of the Ford Motor Company, who has helped raise funds for Bill Wild. But the voters who might be most prone to be swayed by those endorsements are probably more apt to vote in Republican primaries than in Democratic ones.
And the front-runner in the race, former Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans, would take issue with Wild’s claims. Evans does own a couple of businesses, and argues that as sheriff and Detroit police chief, he has balanced budgets far more complex.
Wild thinks the race is now down to himself and Evans. Few people think Bob Ficano, the scandal-ravaged incumbent, has much chance. Kevin McNamara and Phil Cavanagh are sons of famous fathers, but haven’t managed to stand out.
But if Bill Wild has strong positives, he has negatives, too. He is neither personally charismatic nor a compelling speaker.
He has utterly no experience outside Westland and its neighboring suburb of Wayne, where his business is located. He is the only candidate without a college degree, having dropped out of U of M Dearborn to start his scrap business.
And it is legitimate to ask whether managing a middle-class, mostly white suburb is adequate preparation for running a troubled, heavily diverse county of nearly two million people.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that with Wayne County in financial trouble and Detroit in bankruptcy, choosing the right next county executive is crucially important not just for county voters, but our entire state’s economy as well.
Let’s hope they get it right.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.