2008-08-09 / Columnists

History of Detroit Mayors: Thugs, Jailbirds, and Overachievers

Michigan Politics
By George Weeks

If pending charges against scandal-plagued Kwame Kilpatrick lead to prison, he would be the third among Detroit's 57 mayors to become a jailbird.

Republican Richard W. Reading (1938-40), dubbed "double dip Dick" over allegations of taking payoffs from gamblers beyond his salary, went to the slammer when later found guilty of bribery, conspiracy, and income tax evasion.

Conviction on tax evasion also sent 1958-62 Mayor Louis C. Miriani to prison after leaving office. (It was tax evasion that finally nabbed famed gangster Al Capone, who had summer pad roots in northern Michigan and Wisconsin).

Detroit also had post-mayoral high achievers. Two were elected governor, and three became U.S. senators. In chronological order:

• Whig Augustus Porter, mayor in 1838, resigned to successfully run for the Senate, serving 1840-45. He was one of Detroit's least memorable mayors, and unquestionably the least memorable of its mayors to serve in the Senate.

A Detroit street was named after him in 1835 (he became city recorder in 1830). But, alas, the name was changed to Howard in 1885.

• Whig/Republican Zachariah Chandler, mayor in 1851, was a longtime anti-slavery champion who had a distinguished public career - 19 years as an 1857-75, 1879 senator (surpassed only by Republican Arthur Vandenberg's 23 and Democrat Carl Levin's 28-plus), and two years as U.S. interior secretary.

He was active in leading antislavery Whigs into the "Under the Oaks" formation of the Republican Party in Jackson. He had stints chairing both the national and Michigan Republican parties.

• Republican Hazen Pingree, 1890-97 mayor and 1897-1900 governor, was one of the most forceful and extraordinary figures in Michigan politics. He forged a record of success as mayor, taking on the captains of industry, fighting for low streetcar and utility rates, bucking political bosses, and giving people vacant city land and seeds for what became known nationwide as "Pingree's potato patches."

As a highly unorthodox governor, he continued to battle rail interests, describing them "among the grossest offenders in tax-dodging," intent on "leaching the masses of the people."

• Republican James Couzens, an industrialist/philanthropist, 1919-22 mayor and 1922-36 senator, was appointed in 1922 to the Senate to fill a vacancy after resignation of Truman H. Newberry. His son, Frank, was Detroit's 1933-38 mayor.

Like Chandler and Pingree, Couzens was a progressive Republican ("moderate" in today's term) often out of sorts with party powers, so much so that he failed in 1936 to win renomination at a time when he was supporting FDR's New Deal programs.

The middle section of Detroit's Lodge Freeway originally was named for him. But, alas, shades of the fate of Mayor/Senator Porter, his name was dropped when the entire freeway was named for 1920s Mayor John C. Lodge. Couzens' name survives on a service drive.

• Democrat Frank Murphy, 1930-33 mayor and 1937-39 governor, also was an activist U.S. attorney general, defender of civil liberties as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and governor general of the Philippines.

He was aptly described as the "overachiever" among Detroit mayors in upward mobility by Melvin G. Holli, who, as a University of Illinois at Chicago history professor, wrote a superb study of 1824- 1985 Detroit mayors - and their slippery post-mayoral stepping stones (13 failed in bids for governor) - in 1987 for the Michigan Historical Review. That semiannual publication by Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library, in cooperation with the Historical Society of Michigan, is a reference gem for this and other writers.

Murphy was a judge of Detroit's Recorder's Court when he resigned to run for mayor after 1930 Mayor Charles Bowles was recalled for mishandling of jobless problems.

Today, threats of recall are among factors of the Year of Grief that the current mayor has brought upon himself.

Kwame Kilpatrick faces criminal charges, including those of perjury. (A 1975 perjury conviction put ex- Governor John Swainson in a Detroit halfway house for 60 days.) Kilpatrick's resignation has been called for by the Detroit News, which tilts to the right editorially, and the Detroit Free Press, which leans left and has two African- American columnists who have joined the resignation chorus.

In a column headlined "Yank Kilpatrick before Detroit falls," Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the News, wrote: "Kilpatrick acts like a thug, hangs out with convicted thugs…and has projected an image of thuggery on the city of Detroit."

Like fellow Democrat Kilpatrick, 1962-69 Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh came in as a "boy wonder," and won national young-man-of-theyear accolades.

But the political career and racial-problem-solver reputation of Cavanagh, who lost a 1966 senatorial nomination and one for governor in 1974, was done in by Detroit's 1967 race riots. As he said on CBS' "Face the Nation" show, it "was a crusher."

Kilpatrick's crusher is selfinflicted.

The Cavanagh Clan

Cavanagh died of heart failure in 1979. But the family lives on in Michigan politics.

Brother Mike is a Michigan Supreme Court justice and former chief justice; son Mark is in his second six-year term as a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, and other sons are in judicial or county commissioner positions.

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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