NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing won Detroit's mayoral election last night. With former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's arrest in August and the auto industry bailouts fresh in our collective memory, this is certainly a welcomed piece of good news.
Or is it?
Bing, who made a cameo in one of my earlier posts, will finish out Kilpatrick's term, ending on December 31st of this year. There's a few points of interest in this story. First of all, Bing is a former businessman, and his election rehashes old conversations about the idea of business leadership as viable political experience. Bing also won in a pretty tight fashion - 52% to 48% - and maybe there's a story there about split constituencies, or conflicting political alliances. But the telling storyline here is the voter turnout: 15%. Fifteen per cent of registered voters actually voted.
Look, I recognize that voter turnout is typically low during special elections. Hell, Bing will barely be in office seven months before his term is up. And voter turnout for the 2005 Mayoral race was only about 33% - certainly not impressive.
Still, with Kilpatrick's national news-worthy scandal and the continued decline of the city, you'd think more people would be passionate about this election. This low civic engagement points to what some social scientists call the low "collective efficacy" of impoverished neighborhoods. Communities with low levels of collective efficacy are less cohesive, less socially organized, less likely to exhibit social control, less politically engaged, and more likely to concentrate violence and perpetuate existing poverty. Detroit, on the whole, certainly qualifies as one such community.
A dew days ago, ESPN columnist/reporter/pundit/all around brilliant analyst Jemele Hill wrote an extensive piece on Bing that's worth checking out. Hill wrote about Bing's NBA career, his relationship to Detroit after retirement from the NBA, and his vaguely articulated "platform" (Change the business climate. Reduce crime. Focus on education). This is certainly a compelling story for ESPN, but how good is it for Detroit?
It's tough to say what changes Bing will make; it's an understatement to say that his policy platform is a little on the light side. Will Bing's election fix Detroit? Probably not. But a good start might be to invigorate civic engagement and get Detroit residents excited about the democratic process. Because they certainly aren't excited now.