Digging deeper into Michigan bridge vote

By Jack Lessenberry, Special to The Windsor Star

So what really happened to torpedo the governor’s effort to get a vote on his bill for a new bridge over the Detroit River? Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) thought the votes were there on Oct. 19 to move the bill to the full Senate.

The governor thought so, too. Business and industry were hopeful – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all say a new bridge is essential, as has virtually every chamber of commerce in the state.

But, seemingly at the last minute, the bill was done in by two Democrats, State senators Tupac Hunter and Virgil Smith, both of Detroit. They presented a substitute bill calling for community benefits for the people of the impoverished Delray district where the new bridge’s American side would be located.

Senator Mike Kowall (RWhite Lake) said he was totally blindsided, and refused to consider their amendment. The Democrats said they’d been betrayed, and refused to vote on the bill at all.

As a result, the committee voted 3-2 to kill the bill, the “no” votes all coming from Republicans – Kowall, Mike Nofs of Battle Creek and Geoff Hansen of Hart – who have taken campaign contributions from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, who has fought for years to kill any new bridge and preserve his monopoly.

But why did the Democrats walk out?

Why didn’t they vote to advance the bill and continue their fight for the citizens on the Senate floor? Were they possibly fifth columnists for Moroun? Both have taken his money in the past.

The truth seems far simpler than that.

Tupac Hunter, the Senate minority floor leader, said it came down to a group of forgotten people, and one broken promise.

“The people who have been forgotten are those who live in the area,” he told this columnist over a cup of coffee. “It’s easy to look at those people and say ‘what’s the big deal?’ – until something like that happens in your neighbourhood.”

Hunter doesn’t have much use for Matty Moroun. “I did take a contribution from him in 2006, but have refused to meet with him since,” he says. First elected to the legislature nine years ago, when he was only 29, he has a history of marching to his own drummer.

Four years ago, when state party leaders were trying to seal the deal early for Hillary Clinton, who they saw as the certain presidential nominee, Hunter endorsed a guy who wasn’t even on the state primary ballot: Barack Obama.

Interestingly, Delray is not in Hunter’s district, either. In any case, he is term-limited and can’t run again, and is not interested in joining the pack running for Congress.

True, he is mulling over a run for Wayne County treasurer. But right now, he said, “somebody has to think about these people.”

The area that would be affected by a new bridge is home, he said, to 800 or so mainly black and Hispanic folks, who remain in what was once a vibrant Hungarian workingclass neighbourhood.

What he means by community benefits, he said, was some consideration for jobs, some environmental protection and some assurance that the local residents’ group – the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition – will have “a seat at the table.”

That’s no more, he noted, than other neighbourhoods in areas under development have got, as when Comerica Park was built for the Detroit Tigers a dozen or so years ago.

But were the Republicans blindsided? After the vote, the Senate majority leader disavowed knowledge of a community benefits deal, saying the Democrats must have had an understanding with Lieut. Gov. Brian Calley. In any event, Richardville told the Gongwer News Service that they ought to have voted for the bill anyway and then worked to add the benefits in the full Senate.

Hunter, however, said that the only real power he felt he and his party had in this process was in the committee.

Besides, he says the Senate majority leader is just not telling the truth. He says the Democrats did have an agreement with him, “but couldn’t bring his caucus around.” Speaking without apparent bitterness, he added, “I imagine he found it more expedient to throw us under the bus than to risk his standing with them.”

In Delray itself, a number of those seen as neighbourhood leaders appreciate Tupac Hunter’s stand.

Rev. Kevin Casillas is pastor of the nearly century-old First Latin American Baptist Church on Fort Street. He says Moroun has been a bad “corporate citizen,” and he isn’t opposed to a new bridge – though it would mean his church would have to be moved or torn down.

“But we need some protection, some help for Delray,” said Casillas. A construction project at the Ambassador Bridge backed truck traffic up into the Delray community, and air quality has been affected.

He wants to make sure something is done to protect the air if a new bridge is built. “These are people who live here. Maybe they are poor people, but they are people, too.”

The state may need a new bridge. But he says those who live in its shadow shouldn’t be totally forgotten.

Jack Lessenberry writes about people and issues in Michigan.