The Equity Factor

Running for Mayor In a Bankrupt City

A mothballed house in Detroit’s Brush Park Neighborhood. Credit: Bill Bradley

While much of the recent mayoral election news cycle has focused on where Bill de Blasio’s daughter goes to college, two American cities head to the polls tomorrow under unusual civic circumstance: Their respective cities are bankrupt.

Out west, San Bernardino, Calif. was ruled eligible for bankruptcy protection in August, one year after filing. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 in July and is currently in bankruptcy court. The fabric of these cities is vastly different — and they’ve landed in bankruptcy for varying levels of governmental incompetence and economic factors out of their control — but they share the common thread of ballooning pension debt. (Something that has become a bit of an elephant in the room across the country.)

But just because a city is technically broke (or under the watch of an emergency manager) doesn’t mean it can’t get a new mayor. So how does running for mayor in a bankrupt city weigh on its electorate?

“The issue of bankruptcy is what’s on every voter’s mind,” said Ryan Fishman, a candidate for Michigan State Senate who helped raise money for Detroit Mayoral candidate Mike Duggan. “That’s good and bad, right? It’s bad when they decide that because we’re in bankruptcy and because we have an emergency manager, they think the next mayor doesn’t matter and they decide to stay home.”

But Fishman also feels bankruptcy has people more concerned about the future of the city. “The bankruptcy and emergency manager [have] got some people really looking hard at who the next mayor could be and who is most qualified to lead the city out of bankruptcy,” he said. One big fear is rain on election day, which might discourage lower-income voters with little access to transportation from taking Detroit’s thorny and unreliable bus system to the polls.

Members from candidate Benny Napoleon’s camp did not respond to request for comment.

The election in San Bernardino is a bit more complicated. For starters, the ballot is crowded with 10 candidates. (There had been 11 before candidate and Councilmember Chas Kelley pleaded guilty to felony perjury last month.) On top of that, a group of residents has waged a campaign to recall some of the city’s top elected officials.

“It’s not just running for mayor in a bankrupt city,” said candidate Draymond Crawford. “It’s running for mayor in a city that’s so divided.” As if dealing with bankruptcy weren’t enough, the recall motions have split the city, with its population of 213,000, apart.

“We’re talking about neighbors,” Crawford said. “One guy who is heading up a recall effort lives three doors down from a current councilperson being recalled. We’re talking people whose kids are babysitting other people’s kids.”

Rikke Van Johnson, a San Bernardino councilmember since 2004, said he’s faced an uphill battle, given his years working for the city as it tumbled toward bankruptcy. He’s had some convincing to do on the campaign trail. “Being a city councilperson during the fact that we went into bankruptcy kind of cast a cloud over my candidacy,” he said. “What makes you a credible candidate since you were here during the bankruptcy?”

The train station in San Bernardino. Credit: Don Barrett on Flickr

Wendy McCammack, however, sees her time on the city council as an asset. McCammack, who was elected in 2000, swears she is the only candidate to have set foot in bankruptcy court — something she sees as a necessary experience for the next mayor.

“As far as understanding how the bankruptcy relates to how the city needs to be run from the mayor’s position, not one of the mayoral candidates except for myself has ever been to the bankruptcy court in the last year and a half,” she said. “I have been to every single hearing, except for one. And that tells me that the other mayoral candidates really aren’t interested in how to navigate the rest of this process.”

Her stump speech aside, she has a point: An intricate understanding of the city’s finances and its path out of bankruptcy court should be a prerequisite.

Consider unions, though. An endorsement from only one can sway an election either way, and they’re not acting any differently this election, even if their pensions might be in danger. “I think what’s probably impacted the decision-making of the unions is, who is going to be their better friend long term and short term?” Fishman said. It’s the same way elections and interest groups have always operated.

This is proof that, despite watching a city’s health play out in a courtroom, constituents and politicians alike must carry on. One thing is certain: The newly minted mayors for San Bernardino and Detroit will have their hands full.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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