Politics & Prejudices
The story of Detroit’s socialist mayor
Ping, not Bing
Published: February 27, 2013
Once, a long, long time ago, there was a mayor of Detroit who got it right. He figured out what was wrong — mainly government corruption and corporate greed.
More importantly, he figured out how to fix it.
He had no political experience. He was a little fat man with a pale face, scraggly beard and cold blue eyes. To the end of his days, he called himself a conservative Republican.
His opponents, sounding very much like today’s Tea Party lunatics, called him a socialist. He didn’t give a damn.
He helped the poor, had no use for big corporations, and for seven glorious years as mayor of Detroit, he kicked their ass.
His name was Hazen Pingree. He wasn’t a politician, but a shoemaker, and he wasn’t from Michigan, but Maine.
Ping came here almost by accident. He was in a prison camp during the Civil War, listening to some fellow POWs from Detroit talk about what a great place it was. When the war ended, he moved here. Ping — everybody called him Ping — started making shoes. Twenty years later, he was the second-biggest shoe manufacturer in the nation.
But the city he lived in was deeply corrupt. Detroit was being run by private utilities and bar owners, and a deeply corrupt city council. People and businesses were charged high rates for inferior service. Money disappeared.
Detroit in 1890, the year he took office, had only four paved streets. Everything else was mud or rotting logs. Pingree made no extravagant promises. He just got it done.
He figured out a way to spread tax increases out over several years and to float bonds to pave the streets. He set up stings to catch corrupt interests who were offering the councilmen bribes. He took on utilities, forcing them to roll back their rates for natural gas and electricity.
After years of struggle, he forced the streetcar company to charge people less. He said he learned that corporations “had to be kept in their proper place. It is not safe to entrust the government of the country to Wall Street.”
The corporations were shocked. Pingree had no tact. He was not charming. Unlike President Obama, who seems to have to learn over and over again that the right-wingers have no intention of compromising or bargaining in good faith, Pingree didn’t try for smooth compromises with the forces lined up against him.
He just did what was right, appealed to the people, and plowed straight ahead. His crowning success came when he decided the city should have its own public lighting plant.
If you go back and read the attacks of the opposition, you’d swear today’s Tea Party wrote them all. Pingree was a socialist. He was destroying the Constitution.
Freedom would be dead, they said. When Detroiters went to the polls, 92 percent approved his brand of socialism.
Later that year, a severe depression hit the nation — the Panic of 1893. Detroit’s workers were especially hard hit. Nobody then thought government had any obligation to do anything for the poor. Hazen Pingree, years ahead of his time, thought otherwise. He ordered all city land plowed up — including the City Hall lawn — so the poor could plant vegetables, especially potatoes. He asked the city’s churches for help. After they coughed up a mere $13.80, he sold his prize racehorse and used the money to buy seed and supplies.
They called them “Pingree’s potato patches,” and they were a great success. “Whole families could be seen planting, hoeing and weeding, and when fall came they harvested a large crop of potatoes, squashes, turnips, sweet corn,” according to a popular history of Detroit published a few years later.
No mayor ever did more for the city. Pingree then wanted to be governor. For several years, conservatives blocked his nomination, until two things happened.
Business and corporate leaders in Detroit wanted Ping out of the city. They knew they could never beat him, but they persuaded the Republican bosses that the lobbyists and entrenched special interests in Lansing could easily buy off the Legislature and prevent any of his reforms.
Plus, they realized they needed the state’s only really popular Republican to head the ticket in the fall of 1896. So Pingree ran and was elected by a landslide.
Bizarrely, he thought he could still be mayor as well as governor, and did both jobs for a few weeks, until the Michigan Supreme Court said he had to quit one job.
So he turned his energies to the state.
Unlike many today, Pingree was a purely self-made — but not selfish — man. He especially wanted to make the railroads, which completely dominated transportation, to start paying their fair share of taxes. He told the Legislature he wanted to end child labor and establish an eight-hour workday. He wanted a graduated income tax, so the rich would pay their fair share (something Michigan still doesn’t have).
Unfortunately, he almost completely failed. The corporate interests of the day were a lot like Matty Moroun, but a lot smarter. They didn’t spread money around; they just bought a majority of the state Senate, who blocked just about everything Ping tried to do, despite a huge popular outcry.
Ping did manage to get a state constitutional amendment passed which led to eventual taxation — and regulation — of the railroads. He managed to get more money for the schools.
But otherwise, he was frustrated. After four years, he quit, telling the legislature that unless something was done to change how vastly unfair things were, “in less than a quarter century there will be a bloody revolution in this great country of ours.”
With that, he went off to Africa in 1901 to hunt elephants, stopped in Germany to study reforestation, and suddenly got sick and died. Thousands of schoolchildren donated pennies to build a statue to the only governor they knew who cared.
Today, nearly forgotten, that statue sits in Grand Circus Park near the place where today’s city government — the ineffective mayor, the irrational city council — is about to have their powers taken away by an emergency financial manager.
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