Freman Hendrix, aspiring mayor, stepped from a Cadillac, took off his blazer and stood at the center of a circle of factory workers. He said if he is elected on Tuesday, he will improve the dilapidated bus system, rescue the besieged police department and "start turning this city around."
Saving one of his strongest cards for last, he added, "I won't embarrass you."
Hendrix, 55, rolled past incumbent Kwame Kilpatrick in the August primary largely because many voters see the city hemorrhaging people and possibility as its mayor steers Detroit toward insolvency and ridicule. Kilpatrick, 35, hurt his own cause in his first term by spending public money freely on himself and his aides while eliminating hundreds of jobs.
Although the incumbent mayor earned a spot in Tuesday's runoff and apologized -- "Detroit, I've made some mistakes and I'm sorry if those mistakes hurt anyone" -- polls show him trailing Hendrix, a former deputy mayor, as the two Democrats entered the campaign's final weekend.
The bigger question, beyond which man will win, is what either can accomplish. Detroit is spending $15 million more a month than it takes in. It suffers the notoriety of being the poorest city in the country and one of the most crime-ridden. Unemployment has ranged between 12.7 percent and 15 percent this year, compared with 6.6 percent in Michigan and 5 percent nationwide.
Although there are patches of good news, voter Charlene Crossley is not alone in believing Detroit will not rebound in her lifetime.
"If I could get out of the city, I would," said Crossley, 56, a surgical technician who intends to vote for Hendrix. "You're scared of your neighbors. I keep my house looking like the neighborhood on the outside so no one will think, 'She's cleaning up.' "
Willie Huling, an anesthesiologist, surrendered and joined the suburban exodus.
"We've got an urban area with very few middle-class citizens in it," said Huling as he waited with Crossley to view the body of civil rights icon Rosa Parks last week. "I don't think anything could bring me back."
Detroit has lost about 1 million residents since its mid-century heyday, leaving it with 900,000. Once dubbed the Arsenal of Democracy for the factories that manufactured munitions, tanks and warplanes, the city is the epitome of Rust Belt decline. It continues to be rocked by an economy that rewards cheap labor, and its surrounding communities provide better schools and services.
"I've seen poverty increase. We're seeing older and older neighborhoods, lots of abandoned buildings and obsolete shopping strips," said Eleanor M. Josaitis, chief executive and co-founder in 1968 of Focus: Hope, a nonprofit group that delivers food monthly to 43,000 Detroit residents. "So many seniors are living on less than $500 a month, and who can live on that?"
At the same time that schools are laying off teachers because enrollment is declining, deepening the system's problems, some progress is evident, particularly in Detroit's battered downtown. About 50 shops and restaurants have opened downtown in the past three years, and loft conversions are increasing. The number of residential building permits has more than doubled.
A $2 billion riverfront development is underway, and the city is sponsoring an expensive spruce-up in anticipation of Super Bowl XL, scheduled for Feb. 5 at Detroit's Ford Field.
"There are things happening, but the progress is slow," said Richard E. Blouse Jr., president and chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which did not endorse a candidate this year after supporting Kilpatrick in 2001. He said the business community is "split down the middle."
"The first task of the mayor is to deal with the finances. Public safety has got to be the most important thing you protect, but there's a lot of waste at city hall," Blouse said. He called the city council "totally dysfunctional" and warned that working with the council will be a challenge in itself.
"Every day, I think we lose more people," said Blouse, noting that Detroit's middle class is the group most able to escape crime, poor schools and high taxes. "What you're left with is a city of poor people."
Former Democratic activist Dan Mulhern said Detroit's future remains uncertain.
"It's a city going both ways at the same time. It is on the rise and declining," said Mulhern, who is married to Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D). "The question is how do you get to a tipping point on the positive forces and level off the declining forces."
Hendrix, former chief of staff to two-term mayor Dennis W. Archer, painted a dark picture in an interview last week at his campaign headquarters. He said the city "is going in all the wrong directions." His own political jujitsu is a promise to deliver more efficient public services and stronger growth while bringing the city's budget under control and lowering taxes to make Detroit more attractive to workers and entrepreneurs.
He attacked the Kilpatrick administration for incompetence, inexperience and misplaced priorities symbolized by the mayor's own spending.
Kilpatrick, who declined to be interviewed, is a charismatic speaker who was elected Democratic leader of the Michigan House at age 30, one year before he became the nation's youngest big-city mayor. His mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, is a member of Congress. He wore a diamond stud in his ear and rode a wave of enthusiasm only to suffer a series of wounds, often self-inflicted.
Nicknamed the "playah mayah" in the hip-hop magazine the Source, Kilpatrick reportedly rang up $210,000 on his city MasterCard during his first three years -- including $946 at the Washington nightclub Dream and a Las Vegas spa -- and maintained an 18-member security force during a time of layoffs.
He and aides spent $144,000 from the city's petty cash account for such expenses as Detroit Lions tickets and a skybox to see the Rolling Stones, as well as catered meals for the weekly cabinet meeting, the Detroit Free Press found. After first denying it, he owned up to leasing a cherry red Lincoln Navigator for his wife and three children at a two-year cost of $24,995.
"He allowed some of the hype to go to his head. He started some things and didn't finish them. We're almost in receivership now," said airlines ramp supervisor Kelvin Atwater, 35, who voted for him. "People are starting to see through things. People want change."
Hendrix beat Kilpatrick soundly in the 10-candidate August primary, garnering 44 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 34 percent.
Yet when Kilpatrick rose to speak at Wednesday's funeral for Rosa Parks, he drew one of the loudest cheers of the day from the crowd of 4,000. He followed speakers, preachers and some of the Democratic Party's glitterati, including former president Bill Clinton.
Kilpatrick, who recently shed the earring and the moniker of "hip-hop mayor" to appear more serious, joked about the Republican leadership in Washington and talked of inspiration and humility. He then made a comment about Parks's courage and steadfastness that the largely black crowd reacted to slowly, then with louder applause, cheers and finally a standing ovation.
"Thank you, Mrs. Parks," Kilpatrick said, "for showing us in your womanhood what a man's supposed to do."
The night before, as she waited to view Parks's body, bank employee Debora Vann, 48, said she believes Kilpatrick understands.
"I think he deserves a chance. It takes more than four years to straighten things out," said Vann, who believes Detroit is slowly coming back. "It doesn't seem like a big wasteland anymore."
Staff writer Eric Pianin in Washington contributed to this report.
Freman Hendrix, who is leading in polls, pledges more efficient public services while making the city attractive to entrepreneurs.