Free Press Ranks Detroit's 5 Best Mayors; Coleman Young Is 4th

July 22, 2014, 7:20 AM


The Free Press looks to the past in Tuesday's edition and publishes a list of Detroit's five best mayors in connection with the city's 313th birthday Thursday.

Compiled by staffer Dan Austin, the list includes:

1) Hazen Pingree (1890-1897)

2) Frank Murphy (1930-1933)

3) John C. Lodge (Dec. 5, 1922 to April 9, 1923, then again from Aug. 2, 1924 to Nov. 21, 1924 and from Jan. 10, 1928 to Jan. 4, 1930.

4) Coleman Young (1974 to 1994)

5) James Couzens (1919 to 1923)

Pingree and Murphy are no-brainers. They show up  on a list of the best mayors of any city in American history, and have long been lionized locally as two of the city's greatest leaders. Not coincidentally, both Pingree and Murphy went on to hold higher office, a rarity among the men elected as mayors after Detroit emerged as a major city in the late 19th Century.

Young, of course, is Austin's controversial choice, and not only because he is the only mayor on the list who lived during modern times.

Austin writes:

Now, now, hear us out on this. Young is undoubtedly one of the more controversial and divisive figures in Detroit history. There is no doubt of that. There is also no doubt, however, that he is often wrongly blamed for single-handedly destroying the city.

In fact, if you actually look at just the facts, he was actually one of the city’s best mayors. Seriously. The one greatest thing that hurt his legacy is that he didn’t bow out early enough. Had he stopped at three terms, his record would have been more impressive.

Austin notes, as the Free Press reported last year in its examination of mayors' roles in Detroit's bankruptcy, that Young was a good steward of the city's finances.

While there is no doubt that he was a man of fiery rhetoric, the city’s first black mayor was actually a skilled money manager. He not only recognized early on -- when many of his predecessors had not -- that Detroit was in trouble, he reduced spending and department budgets, tried to curb the city’s debt and shrunk the city’s work force by thousands, yes, thousands of employees.

Under Young, Detroit cut about 6,000 workers from 1978 to 1984, according to financial records reviewed by the Free Press. During his two decades as mayor, he also cut about 2,000 Police Department employees and about 500 Fire Department employees.

And all this austerity came during the national recession in the 1980s.

Also consider this: Young was the only Detroit mayor -- from either party -- since 1950 to lead the city with more income than debt. 

The paper on Wednesday will list the city's four worst mayors, in addition to Kwame Kilpatrick.

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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