With Little to Cheer About, Detroit Turns to Ex-NBA Star

"We've got a city where a lot of people don't even hope or dream anymore," says Dave Bing, Detroit's new mayor. (By Susan Tusa -- Detroit Free Press)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

DETROIT -- Before rising to national prominence as a standout at Syracuse University, before a stellar career with the Detroit Pistons earned him a spot in basketball's Hall of Fame, Dave Bing shared a cramped bedroom with three siblings in a poor Northeast Washington neighborhood.

Growing up on 59th Street in the 1950s, Bing shot hoops at Kelly Miller playground and at Spingarn High School. He was the kind of kid, childhood friends recall, who always respected his elders and never walked by the trash he saw on the street.

The values of his youth guided him on a career path from basketball star to successful businessman, from community developer to philanthropist in his adopted home town of Detroit. Now, at 65, Bing is taking on his greatest challenge yet, having just been elected mayor of one of America's most troubled cities. He is hoping his lifelong values won't fail him, that he can restore faith in those who have given up.

"We've got a city where a lot of people don't even hope or dream anymore," Bing said in an interview last week, after winning Tuesday's special election. "In the 42 years that I've been here, I still dream. I dream that this city can be what it was before I even got here."

He added: "If you've got the right values system, regardless of how poor you are or what kind of background you come from, you can succeed. That's what I want to make the people here understand."

For Bing, a political newcomer who takes office this week, the stakes could not be higher. The city's rising unemployment rate stands at 22 percent, the nation's highest. Urban blight is accelerating as middle-class families and businesses flee to the suburbs. The public schools are in disarray, the crime rate is among the country's worst, and the city has a $300 million budget deficit. General Motors is on the brink of collapse.

"What isn't he inheriting might be a better question," said Deborah Dingell, a GM executive and a leader in Michigan's Democratic Party. "His tax base continues to erode, he's got significant business problems, downtown becomes emptier, there's no retail in the city, the neighborhoods have been deteriorating, he's got major issues like lighting, safety, police, fire -- it's all there."

And then there's the recent tumult off the marble-floored corridors of City Hall.

Detroit's previous mayor, Kwame M. Kilpatrick, a flamboyant and masterful stump politician, was elected in 2002, at age 31. He came to revel in the luxuries of the office, being called the "Hip Hop Mayor," frequenting nightclubs and charging lavish meals and spa visits to his city credit card. Kilpatrick had an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, and the two exchanged intimate text messages. Kilpatrick lied under oath about the relationship; he resigned last fall and served time in jail.

The City Council, meanwhile, has been beset by its own scandals and infighting -- so much so that Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel announced last week that she will not run for reelection. She told the Detroit News that "it gets hard to read about all of the crooks downtown."

In Tuesday's election, Bing ousted Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr., who became interim mayor when Kilpatrick resigned. Bing will serve out the last months of Kilpatrick's term and then face voters in November for his own four-year term.

Polls before the election consistently showed Cockrel, the City Council president, leading, and Bing's victory was interpreted as a vote for change.

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