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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM FLINT, MICH.

Mayor Is Ousted in a Town Divided

Economics: Voters in the debt-ridden city recall a three-term incumbent. Race is a subtext writ large.

March 07, 2002|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLINT, Mich. — A recall election ousted the longtime mayor this week, exposing racial tensions in this segregated auto town that the good times have forgotten.

Woodrow Stanley, 51, lost decisively Tuesday in a recall election sponsored by angry residents who accused the third-term incumbent of being more interested in hanging on to his $107,000-a-year job than dealing aggressively with a city budget deficit that has ballooned to more than $30 million.

Stanley said Wednesday that the recall vote was a "cruel hoax" that has left voters believing "something magical is going to happen" to make Flint's worries disappear.

The black mayor also fingered the Flint Journal as the white establishment force behind an election that has reopened deep racial wounds in a place where the blacks live north of the Flint River, the whites to the south. He said the effort turned black against black, just like the old days in the South.

"The stench of racism that reeks [from] this election will linger in the nostrils of this community for decades," he told supporters late Tuesday in his concession speech.

Those who supported the recall agreed it hit a racial nerve.

"It has reopened some long-laying wounds and divided the city along racial lines," said Roger Samuel, publisher of the Flint Journal, the paper that supported the recall. "The process is what did that, but the end result will be the city moving forward."

Recall organizers say that their motives were driven by the former mayor's mismanagement and that Stanley has a history of playing the race card. They cite his last reelection, when he referred to his white opponent's home in northern Michigan as the "big house," a reference to a slave-master's plantation home.

The recall is the first of a big-city mayor since Omaha booted its chief executive in 1987. The vote was 15,863 to 12,336.

On Wednesday, city administrator Darnell Earley, who supported Stanley, was sworn in as interim mayor and vowed to bring the community together.

Faced with a state takeover of its finances, Flint, immortalized in a 1989 documentary about plant closings titled "Roger & Me," must now slash services even deeper than last year, when it closed a fire station, the city jail and eliminated 86 jobs in the fire and police departments. The choices are grim for a citizenry that has seen grass grown knee-high in a downtown municipal park during summer and its roads lined with potholes year-round.

"Everything will have to be on the table," Earley said. "Every option must be explored and every effort must be made to bring a balanced budget before the council for approval."

It is possible for this city of 125,000, about 50 miles northwest of Detroit, to have four different mayors within 20 months: Stanley, Earley, a successor to fill out the unexpired term and a new mayor who wins the regular election in 2003. And since the election to fill the unexpired term will be a one-time contest held within the next 60 days, the next mayor could emerge from a crowded field with far less than 50% of the vote.

The birthplace of General Motors, Flint rose and fell on the fortunes of the auto giant. A 1937 sit-down strike at a GM plant here gave birth to the United Auto Workers, and the city rode GM's hot streak to prosperity during the 1950s and '60s.

Then came the energy crisis of the 1970s and Japanese imports that flooded the market. A one-company town, Flint took the brunt of it as GM cut large-car production and the number of auto jobs shrank from 80,000 in the 1980s to 20,000 today.

Filmmaker Michael Moore captured the effect of plant closings in his social commentary, which featured vignettes of the city's decline--including an interview with a woman who sold rabbit meat--as Moore tried to get an interview with then-GM Chairman Roger Smith.

Today, the city is even worse off. In 1999, GM closed its Buick City plant, idling 4,000 workers.

The city population has tipped to majority in recent years, even as more affluent whites have moved into county areas south of Flint from adjacent Oakland County. That dynamic has caused unease as Stanley worked to shore up his political support among north Flint voters. (The city's racial breakdown today is 53% black, 41% white and 3% Latino of any race.)

Whites still talk about Stanley's comments several years ago during the selection of a replacement for the Genesee County sheriff, said Flint Councilman Matt Schlinker. Stanley warned a three-member panel that it better choose a black candidate he favored or "you better not come north of the river." Stanley acknowledges making the statement but said it was about political support in the black community, not a racial taunt.

In an interview Wednesday, Stanley said he's been made the scapegoat for the downturn created by GM's painful withdrawal. And he said the real force behind the recall is the Journal, which endorsed him when he first ran in 1991.

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