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Political futures can be as hard to manage as Detroit under Emergency Management

The path of emergency management in Detroit is packed with political peril and promise (we decided to be quite alliterative this week). As Joe Biden once said, “This is a big deal.”

An Emergency Manager for the state’s largest city: It’s big. It’s complicated. Success would be sweet, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.

You could say Governor Rick Snyder now owns the city of Detroit, or at least its problems. And yet, his fate -  his political fate, the fate of his aspiration to be the governor who finally fixes Detroit - is now in the hands of someone else: Kevyn Orr. Orr was named Emergency Manager yesterday afternoon in Detroit. Orr’s success or failure will be Rick Snyder’s success or failure.

There’s already been a lot of talk about what this means for Rick Snyder’s future as he gets ready to run for reelection next year. And opinions are mixed. One take: The governor looks assertive and he’s taking action, which helps him regardless of the result. The other side: He’s taking a big risk and can be tagged as a failure if Detroit isn’t showing some real improvement by next spring or summer.

Here’s what’s difficult about any analysis of this situation: Ceteris paribus. It’s a common Latin phrase that economists use. It means “all things being equal.” And any analysis of any individual situation has to assume there’s some stability in the circumstances surrounding it. And in politics that’s not the case. Ever. There are always moving parts that are forcing other moving parts into new directions.

So, that raises the question: what forces, what directions, does this appointment of an Emergency Manager set in motion? Detroit’s politicians have to choose a side: will they be constructive and cooperative? Or will they be competitive;  taking their shots at the Emergency Manager at every chance?

And how about this: Does the appointment of an EM convince people NOT to run for political office in the city?  Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh says he’s worried about that. “We don’t want to send a message that the quality of candidates should diminish because the job doesn’t have any power.”

In fact, a lot of Democrats are still breathlessly hoping that Wayne County problem-solver Mike Duggan will use the appointment of the EM as the rationale to hang up his campaign for mayor of Detroit and pivot to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. He could say, “I’m not running for mayor now because it’s a powerless position – so I’m going to run against the guy who appointed the emergency manager." Cautionary note here: We’re not seeing any signals yet that this is going to happen. Although, plenty of Democrats would like it to.

There’s also the question: Does this political hot button help drive turnout in 2014? Turnout, especially among Democrats, typically goes way down in non-presidential years. Does this get enough Democrats worked up – along with the controversial right-to-work law, maybe some abortion issues – to boost turnout by a few points to help the Democratic ticket?

We could also have an emergency manager ballot question next year (not a referendum). Republicans referendum-proofed the new emergency manager law by putting an appropriation, a spending provision, into it. The Michigan Constitution makes appropriations acts immune to voter rejection. But the same group of people is now looking to enact a voter-approved initiated law. Look for a petition drive this summer to get a proposal on the November 2014 ballot to pass a new municipal finance law to replace the EM law. That would not suspend the existing law like a referendum would. But it does keep the question on the front-burner.

The governor wants the emergency management wrapped up in a year to 18 months, when the Detroit city council and the mayor can vote out the Emergency Manager and try to renegotiate a new consent agreement. All of this could be happening just weeks before the November 2014 election. Detroit could be front and center as voters are making up their minds next year how - or if - to vote.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder, are Mayor Dave Bing or any of these mayoral hopefuls secretly hoping that an emergency manager will just take care of all the really difficult, horrible things that will have to be done before they step in, basically in 2015, to pick up and lead Detroit’s recovery?

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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