Detroit's Young ending a colorful 20-year run ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 24, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- With the announcement by five-term Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit that he will not seek a sixth four-year term this fall, the ranks of the nation's big-city black mayors will lose a throwback to the old breed of tough-talking, tough-performing City Hall strongmen that is vanishing around the country.

Once one of the most influential voices of urban politics and power in the Democratic Party, Young will step down with his personal image intact but with his political clout considerably diminished. Although he cited his age, 75, and declining health as reasons for quitting after 20 years as Detroit's mayor, polls indicated he would have faced an uphill fight to win yet another term against the front-running challenger, former Michigan State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer, who also is black.

Still, Young had faced adversity often in the past and always overcame it, by a combination of the sheer force of his personality and a shrewd and effective political alliance with the city's business community, based on industrial development even as parts of Detroit came to resemble a boarded-up ghost town.

Under his stewardship, the dismal downtown was brightened by the spectacular glass skyscraper complex known as the Renaissance Center, though to many it was a white elephant after an initial splash, highlighted by playing host to the 1980 Republican National Convention. A "People Mover" monorail came later, but never succeeded in rehabilitating the downtown from its reputation as a place to avoid after nightfall.

Four years ago Young's bid for a fourth term ran smack into a paternity case against him settled in court. While some in the city deplored the episode, it did nothing to diminish Young's image as a street-smart pol and a man of physical vitality beyond his years.

At the height of his political power, Young carried heavily black Detroit for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale over Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Michigan party caucuses and was instrumental in squeezing a subsequent endorsement of Mondale from Jackson at a critical meeting of black leaders in St. Paul. Young, who had little love for Jackson, with great delight capped the session by slapping a big Mondale sticker on his lapel before the television cameras.

But Young was above all a political realist. Four years later, the task of selling Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to Detroit's blacks over Jackson was an impossible one, so Young took the diplomatic course of "releasing" his political troops to vote as dTC they wished. The city went heavily for Jackson, as did Michigan, in the party caucuses.

Young figured out early in his career how to deal with the press. He spoke freely and openly with reporters, but he often protected himself from direct quotation by sprinkling his comments generously with the sort of profanity that never would make its way into a family newspaper or onto a television screen.

After 20 years of Coleman Young, plenty of would-be successors who have been waiting patiently in line will take a crack at winning the Sept. 14 primary, including a last-minute starter, Rep. John Conyers of Detroit.

Conyers made a weak showing as a Young challenger four years ago but is a highly visible political figure in the city.

In Young's last mayoral campaign four years ago, he was challenged by Tom Barrow, a nephew of Detroit's own Joe Louis Barrow, known to heavyweight boxing by the first two names.

Barrow's campaign ran television ads showing the famous Brown Bomber disposing of Max Schmeling in the first round of their memorable rematch in 1938.

But just as the pride of Nazi Germany was no match for Louis the second time around, Young easily disposed of Barrow and continued about his business as Mr. Detroit.

With Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and Maynard Jackson of Atlanta retiring, and David Dinkins of New York facing an uphill fight for re-election, the corps of black big-city mayors is being particularly hard hit this year.

Coleman Young's departure removes one of its strongest, and certainly most colorful, voices.

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