Michigan Primary: Detroit not excited by any candidate


DETROIT — “It doesn’t look so bad at night,” said “Billy,” who doubles as my Virgil in this guide to Detroit’s underworld. “It could almost be a real city.”

He is right: the iconic GM tower, the “Spirit of Detroit” statue, the brightly lit sports stadiums appear vibrant at night, glowing with neon that lights against the dark sky. An event at the Fox Theatre has drawn thousands of people, who are lined up around the corner waiting to get in.

This is not the city that revealed itself earlier in the day, as I drove along the extravagantly named “West Grand Boulevard.” There, once gracious buildings now stand boarded up, trash littering the sidewalks, not a soul in sight. It looks much more like a war zone than the last place I lived — Kabul, Afghanistan.

It is also more dangerous. Detroit has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and a website giving advice on where to buy homes lists the curious fact that “Within Michigan, more than 100% (sic) of the communities have a lower crime rate than Detroit.” 

The place where I am staying, the elegant Hotel St. Regis, is right downtown, with stately faux-Gothic architecture and well-appointed rooms. But the nightly rate is less than what I paid at a Comfort Inn last night in Wisconsin, yet another sign of the city's collapsed economy.

“Billy,” who prefers not to be more closely identified since he holds a prominent place in the community, is not exactly a fan of the city he has lived in for the past five years.

“I bought a condo for over $210,000 when I came here,” he said. “Now I’d be lucky to get $70,000.” His residence is downtown, and he has suffered numerous break-ins over the past few years, with fewer than half the units in his complex occupied.

Most Detroit residents are so far underwater on their mortgages that they cannot envision ever recouping their investment. Those like retired couple Sandy and Paul, with a house on a lake that they plan to live on for the rest of their lives, are not too worried. But their daughter, Tara, is stuck with a waterfront home now worth just a third of her original investment.

Even the comeback of General Motors, which reported record profits this year, has not lifted spirits much.

“Of course everyone hopes that Detroit will come back,” says Billy. “But it is going to be a long haul.”

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Detroit has already demonstrated its almost total rejection of the Republican presidential slate. The contenders in Tuesday’s key presidential primary have been given the cold shoulder in this city of slightly over 700,000 — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney most acutely.

Romney needs a win here badly; he was born in Michigan, and his father, George Romney, was a well-loved and respected governor of the state in the 1960s. A snub by the voters would be a painful blow to his presumed inevitability.

But Romney is campaigning badly in Michigan. A widely ridiculed interview in which he warbled on at embarrassing length about Michigan’s trees, which are all “exactly the right height,” and how he just loves “the lakes — not just the Great lakes, but all the little inland ones, too,” has had more play on late-night comedy shows than with the public at large.

His appearance at Ford Field in Detroit also fell humiliatingly flat: just a few hundred supporters turned up in a stadium that holds 70,000. Footage of the empty rows did little to boost Romney’s status. Nor did he win hearts and minds in this desperately poor town by boasting that he drove a Mustang and a Chevy pickup, while is wife Ann had “a couple of Cadillacs.”

The man who wants desperately to be seen as a son of the soil here committed a cardinal sin by opposing the bailout of the auto industry. As Detroit’s destroyed neighborhoods attest, the city was almost totally dependent on the “Big Three” — Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

GM received close to $50 billion in bailout money; Chrysler $12.5 billion. Both companies have made significant progress, and observers like Billy predict that President Barack Obama, who engineered the rescue, will have an easy time of it in November.

“I don’t see how Obama can lose Detroit,” said the bearded Billy, over dinner in a crowded downtown pub. “Maybe some other Michigan communities, like Grand Rapids, or the Upper Peninsula, may have different ideas. But Detroit, which is also 80 percent black, will go for the president.”

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But before the general election comes Tuesday’s primary.

Michigan has a population of over 9.8 million, with 7.5 million registered voters. It is also an open primary, meaning anyone — Democrat, Republican, or independent — can cast a ballot. Some 56 delegates are at stake — 42 from Congressional districts, and 14 “at large.” The delegates will be apportioned according to the results in each district, so this is not a “winner take all” vote.

The polls seesaw between Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in the state. Santorum has gained some traction with his socially conservative views, and, while he also opposed the auto industry bailout, he had also voted against the rescue of Wall Street a few years earlier. Santorum has attacked Romney for supporting the bankers, while dooming the autoworkers to ruin.

Romney has not backed away from his position, which is that the auto industry should have gone through “managed bankruptcy” with a government handout, but such nuanced economic arguments hold little sway in a drowning city.

Right now Romney has a slight edge in many surveys, with about 39 percent of the vote compared to Santorum’s 35 percent. But it was exactly the opposite a few days ago, and no one is really confident of the outcome.

One thing, however, is almost certain: Detroit will not be the kingmaker in this election. Very few people surveyed expressed an intention to vote. Most just shrugged and turned away when asked whether they would go to the polls on Tuesday.

Detroit residents have more on their minds than a Republican presidential candidate. The longhaired biker type who rode the elevator with me to my fifth-floor room gave me a reassuring nod as I stepped out.

“Stay safe,” he warned.

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