At the grand-opening celebration for Gardenview Estates, a $221 millionplus public-housing development on Detroit's northwest side, activist Leila Gregory, 51, took the podium and gushed about all the local celebrities in attendance. There was John Conyers Jr., the veteran Congressman ("You're an American idol!"), and Greg Mathis, the popular TV judge ("I just love him!"). When Gregory turned to Dave Bing the NBA legend, steel magnate and mayor of Detroit her demeanor changed. All she could manage was a curt "Hello, Mr. Mayor" before moving on. Not that it mattered much to Bing. A minute later, the mayor, who seems to endure ceremony only because it comes with the title, departed the premises.
In many ways, Gregory's reserve speaks for Detroit. Bing assumed the mayoralty in a special election in May, after the fall of Kwame Kilpatrick, whose promising political career was dashed in a sex-text-messaging scandal that led to a conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Now Bing, 65, is facing a Nov. 3 election for a full term. To most Detroiters, Bing despite his basketball fame often seems a remote, unknowable figure, and the feeling is mutual. He only recently bought a home in the city and still maintains one in an affluent Detroit suburb. To date, he has declined to use Detroit's mayoral mansion.
Yet he may be the right man for one of the most thankless jobs in America. Bing inherited a budget deficit of at least $275 million, an unemployment rate of about 29% and a city government that barely functions. His turnaround strategy hinges not on personal warmth but on two key arguments: First, Detroit must reduce the size of its 42 government agencies to be proportionate to a city with a shrinking population and smaller coffers. That, in turn, means potentially reducing the city's job rolls from 13,200 to about 12,000 by the end of 2009 a risky proposition in a region with historically strong unions. It's a strategy that's particularly dangerous in an election year. So far, Bing seems unfazed by both the challenges and his constituents' skepticism: only 17% of Detroit's registered voters bothered to show up at the polls for the August primary. "Changes that should have happened 20 years ago are now upon us," Bing told me. "Previous administrations had folks who were so concerned about getting elected, or re-elected. I'm not worried about that."
Bing's ability to focus on the long view is a consistent theme of his biography. He grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a contractor father and a homemaker mother. After graduating from Syracuse University, Bing played nine seasons for the Detroit Pistons. During that time, he was the rare All-Star talent who understood that there was life after basketball. In the off-season, he worked as a bank teller and manager, grasping for his next career. In 1980 he formed Bing Steel and rode the wave of automotive-industry interest in cultivating a base of black and female suppliers. He was, essentially, a bridge between Detroit's growing black middle class and the region's then largely white business élite.
Coleman Young, Detroit's first black mayor, urged Bing to consider a run for city hall in 1993. Bing wasn't interested. But after the national embarrassment of Kilpatrick's tenure in addition to his crimes, there were rumors of parties with strippers at Detroit's official mayoral residence leaders of the region's business community began drafting potential candidates, with Bing's name at the top of the list. This time, out of civic pride, he assented. Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, says his peers see Bing as "someone who brings instant credibility back to Detroit. Right now that's really important. There needs to be adult supervision."
Bing sees himself as an emergency caretaker, someone who will impose his own financial discipline and entrepreneurial sense on city government much like New York City's Michael Bloomberg and Denver's John Hickenlooper, two other businessmen turned city executives. But the situation is so dire that, for a change, Bing has no long view no transformative plan for a future Detroit. "There's no doubt in my mind we've got to think longer term," says Bing. "But that's not today. If we don't handle the problems we've got today, there is no long term."
Barring anything unforeseen, Bing will win re-election handily. Detroiters may not love him "So he's a big multimillionaire," says Gregory. "He's moving to our city to help clean it up. Who asked you to do that?" but there really are no other viable alternatives. "I've been successful in two careers, financially secure," says Bing. "Trying to help turn this city around was more important than having the good life." He adds, "Folks in government and the city had this entitlement attitude that says, 'It's always been this way. It's always going to be this way.' But we've accepted mediocrity, and that just doesn't work anymore."