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What killed Detroit? Let’s not forget the ‘who.’

(Carlos Osorio/AP) (Carlos Osorio/AP)

The finger-pointing for Detroit's decades of decline usually starts with the 1967 race riots. High pensions for unionized workers get its share of the blame, as does the global economic trends that upended the auto industry. Meanwhile, racial politics and white flight to the suburbs rightly earn a place as a driver of the city's blight.

But so much focus on what happened can leave behind the "who." Yes, a confluence of economic and cultural forces unquestionably led to Detroit's decline and its filing, on Thursday, for the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. But Detroit also failed as a city because of the leaders who failed Detroit.

Some names are obvious. There is former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who could face 20 years in prison after being convicted for crimes such as extortion, bribery and racketeering. Obviously, decades of decline preceded the "hip-hop mayor," but the corruption of his tenure certainly didn't help. While Kilpatrick was in office, Detroit's credit ratings returned to junk status.

There is Coleman Young, the combative five-term mayor who led the city for what Daniel Okrent has called, in Time, a "corrosive two-decade rule of a black politician who cared more about retribution than about resurrection." Though Young's tenure is caught up in racial divisiveness that some believe make him misunderstood, it's clear he stayed in office for far too long, did little to try and mend fences broken down along racial lines, and led the city when its debt rating first reached junk status.

But it would be simplistic to point only to two elected officials. This is a city where, for decades, delusional auto industry executives ignored global economic forces, attempts at regulation, and consumer needs and tastes, refusing to evolve their business until it was far too late. It's a city where union leaders have long held unrealistic and short-sighted goals which, combined with their unparalleled power, exacerbated the industry's problems and the city's employment prospects.

It's a city where some of the region's representatives in Washington have historically been so defending of those industries and their unions that they failed to diversify its economic base. Here's Okrent again, admitting other politicians have done the same but reserving a special enmity for the country's longest-serving Congressman, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.): "By so ably satisfying the wishes of the auto industry--by encouraging southeastern Michigan's reliance on this single, lumbering mastodon--Dingell has in fact played a signal role in destroying Detroit."

More recently, this is a city where there have been five police chiefs in five years. Where a report by the city's emergency manager called Detroit's operations "dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices, and, in some cases, indifference or corruption." Where one city council member walked away from his mortgage, mailing in his keys and abandoning yet another home in Detroit, while another was stripped of the council's presidency after disappearing amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a teenager. (No charges have been filed, and the teen's family has asked the police to suspend its investigation, but the former council president's accounts are being audited.)

This is a city where leaders have failed it time and time again. One can only hope that its extraordinarily powerful emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr; the next mayor of Detroit (its current one gets credit for some of his efforts, but has already said he won't run for reelection); and any more of the Motor City's other leaders do not in this time of great need.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Detroit's demise was decades in the making

What comes next for bankrupt Detroit?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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Jena McGregor · July 18, 2013

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