Michigan governor Rick Synder deemed Kevyn Orr in charge of Detroit’s financial future today, making a bankruptcy lawyer the emergency financial manager of the largest city to ever be taken over by its own state. Detroit has been in a state of decay for over half of century, and this may be the boldest move yet to change the city’s fortunes around.
Governor Synder has little to lose. Detroit’s black population did not put the Republican governor in office, and he will not get their votes when he runs for re-election next year. He does, however, have everything to gain. If the city’s fate starts to turn around, he will get credit for saving America’s most miserable city.
As an emergency financial manager, Orr will have the authority to hire who he wants, fire who he wants, and create new rules. He will set the city’s budget, and his priority will be fixing the numbers. While fixing the budget does not mean fixing the city, for today’s debt-focused Republicans, it might as well.
Detroit is Michigan’s largest city and the 18th largest in the country. While it has a population of over 700,000; this is only a shadow of its former 1950’s population of nearly 2 million. The city’s white population has fallen from over 800,000 — or nearly half of the city’s former population — to less than one-tenth of the city’s current populace.
Detroit’s success was tied to the automobile industry, which was soaring in the 1950s and the decades following. Detroit made the cars that created America’s suburbs, and then the city’s middle class moved away. As the automobile industry cut employees, the middle-class stopped coming back. The city has struggled to recover from racial rifts and de-industrialization that have stripped it of will.
Detroit lacks the political pull it once had. Its major industry has staggered, and its population has fled. While the city remains Michigan’s largest, it totals less than a tenth of the state’s population. A politician no longer needs Detroit to win statewide office. Detroit has less control over its future than ever before, but after over a century of decline, that should not come as a surprise. Detroit has an emergency financial manager now and with him comes the belief that there may finally be a way out, whatever the cost.