Can Anyone Run This Place?

The depressing yet inspiring race for mayor of one of America’s most troubled cities.

FLINT, Mich.—The winner of this city’s Aug. 4 special mayoral election will be expected to solve problems caused by complex global economic forces that he or she is powerless to control, while also mastering the mundane yet vexing task of running a weary city in need of jobs and revenue. Hey, I got a pothole on my block, and the garbage truck missed my house yesterday. And while you’re at it, could you please do something about deindustrialization?

A Dayne Walling campaign office located in a defunct ice cream shop

While Flint may be emblematic of the problems facing the country’s manufacturing base, so-called “Vehicle City” is unique in the magnitude of its decline. In the 1970s, the birthplace of General Motors had one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States. Now more than one-third of residents live in poverty. After the loss of nearly 80,000 GM jobs over the last three decades, Flint has landed on the Forbes lists of “most miserable cities” and “fastest-dying cities.” (Alas, the clever editors at Forbes keep no such tally for business magazines.)

All of which raises the question: Why would anyone want this job? The odds of success seem slim, and it’s hardly a reliable political stepping stone. On the other hand, if Flint has already lived through the apocalypse, then things can only get better. And there is this: Retail politics, even in a decaying city like Flint, have an undeniable appeal—as does political power, however diminished.

When the two candidates talk about the city made famous by Michael Moore, it’s clear they take Flint’s demise personally. “It’s my hometown, and no matter where I’ve lived I have a special place in my heart for this city,” says Dayne Walling, a 35-year-old former Rhodes scholar who has never before held elected office. “It’s terrible to see this kind of suffering inflicted on a community. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t happen anywhere in this country. So I’m committed to being part of the solution.”

Flint mayoral candidates Dayne Walling and Brenda Clack judge a Kool-Aid contest on the campaign trail

His opponent is Brenda Clack, a 64-year-old grandmother, former state representative and current county commissioner. “It is the worst of times, but a leader leads in good times and in bad,” she says. “I feel that people who have stayed in Flint, who have hung on, who have persevered deserve a leader of integrity.”

One of the two Democrats will replace Don Williamson, a convicted felon-turned-multimillionaire who resigned in February to avoid a recall election that was likely to remove him from office. (Appropriately enough, the mayor of Vehicle City got sent up for a car-theft scheme and made his post-prison fortune manufacturing bumpers.) “The Don” is a tough act to follow. He sought to reverse Flint’s economic misfortune by installing a drag strip on a city street, only to drop the idea when liability issues proved overwhelming. But that ill-advised venture probably cost the city less than the lawsuit that resulted after the mayor had a paper carrier arrested for delivering the Flint Journal and its unflattering editorials to City Hall.

Walling cruised to victory in a May primary with 45 percent of the vote. He was the only white candidate in a field of six. Clack finished a distant second with 16 percent.

Clack promises to implement a “survival plan” for the city to stabilize the budget and stave off receivership by the state, which briefly took over the city in 2002. She plans to secure federal dollars to help close a budget gap and rehire laid-off police as well as create an economic and jobs task force. “You can only understand the pulse of this city if you’ve been here and been a part of it,” she says.

It’s a veiled reference to Walling, who—like many other locals—left Flint after high school. He attended Michigan State University and earned a master’s degree in urban affairs from the University of London. He then worked for the mayor of Washington and studied community and economic development in Minnesota before returning to Flint to take on Williamson in 2007.

It was not the ideal race for a rookie candidate with wonkish tendencies returning home after a long absence. Walling, who has a lot of nervous energy and can come off as awkwardly earnest on the campaign trail, went up against an outspoken politician fully at ease with himself. Unapologetically portraying Walling as a carpetbagger and drawing solid support from the city’s majority African-American population, Williamson won by 581 votes.

Walling also has a specific plan to revitalize Flint’s moribund economy. He wants to build growth around the city’s existing colleges and universities, including a University of Michigan campus; promote neighborhood businesses; and draw some manufacturing jobs back to the 1,500 empty acres once home to factories.

He is actively courting black voters—the same voters Clack needs to pull off an upset. Walling held an open house on a recent Saturday at a strategically placed satellite campaign office in the city’s Civic Park district, where abandoned homes and overgrown lots battle occupied dwellings for supremacy. Vera Rison—a local political icon who served as a county commissioner and state legislator—was the guest of honor. Her endorsement is a coup for Walling. “Auntie Vera,” nearly blind at 70 and wearing a sharp blue blazer and stylish pink shoes, snacked on a plate of peanuts while holding court at a table near the front of the room.

“I do feel in my heart that Dayne Walling will commit himself to the city,” Rison told me as I crouched beside her. “I want a new direction for Flint. That’s what it’s about, sweetheart. Thank you.”

The interview apparently over, a friend guided Rison slowly outside to a pearl-colored Cadillac parked in front. Walling gave Auntie Vera a tentative hug and kissed her on the cheek before she settled into the passenger seat for the ride home.

Clack, for her part, dismisses the significance of endorsements and the primary results. “Yes, Walling got 45 percent of the vote, but the rest of the pie was divided among five candidates,” she said. “I’m pulling those votes in now. My record shows I’ve endeavored to help all the people of this community—not just some of them—and they’ll remember that. They’ll be there for me.”

Twenty supporters were there for her at a banquet room in the north end of the city for a Clack-sponsored Juneteenth celebration. There were hamburgers, fruit salad, poetry readings, and a performance by Dance Ministry—three teenage girls wearing matching black skirts and purple shirts from the Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church.

The Rev. Allen Overton, a former student of Clack’s when she taught economics at Northwestern High School in the 1980s, delivered the invocation. “Miss Clack understands financing and budgets,” he later told me. “She can motivate people. She got me to work in high school, so you know she’s good.”

Denise Ford, a local singer who performs as DeVynne and has opened for Mary J. Blige and The Emotions, wrapped up the entertainment with an impressive rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For.” It included a heartfelt, spoken-word interlude: “Be sure to vote for Brenda Clack because she’ll always be there for you.” I’m pretty sure it’s the first time Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick have been enlisted in a Flint mayoral campaign. The crowd clapped loudly and Clack teared up, dabbing her eyes with a napkin before she embraced DeVynne.

But for me, the highlight—if that’s the word—of covering this campaign came when Clack and Walling momentarily joined forces at the Landmark Food Center, the kind of grocery store where a security guard roams the fluorescently lit aisles and customers are required to check their bags at the counter. Flanked by displays of breakfast cereal, the two candidates judged a Kool-Aid-making contest sponsored by three local churches.

The mixologists tried mightily to influence their decision. “Taste No. 4 and taste no more!” one contestant yelled out, prompting a round of cheering from two dozen spectators gathered around a pair of tables covered with neon-green tablecloths and littered with plastic pitchers, spent Kool-Aid packs, and sacks of sugar. “No. 5 tells no lies!” countered another contestant. Clack and Walling sipped from foam cups and huddled over the score sheet.

Terese Cole, a 51-year-old former GM employee wearing a tidy skirt and flower-patterned top, was the exuberant winner of $100 and a trophy, which she proudly held aloft. “This is a great event,” said Landmark owner Mark Kattola, the only person in a jacket and tie. “I’ve been here in the community 34 years.” I asked whether he lives nearby, trying to get a gauge on Flint’s rapidly changing demographics.

“Well, I actually live in Grand Blanc,” he said with a tight smile, inadvertently illustrating one of the city’s myriad problems. Thousands have left Flint in search of out-of-state jobs or relocated to unfortunately named suburban enclaves like Grand Blanc and Flushing. The population is expected to dip to 100,000 in the next census, half of what it was in the mid-1960s.

Walling is a rarity: someone who left Flint and came back. Surrounded by his wife and two young sons outfitted in black campaign T-shirts, he seemed genuinely enthused by the contest. “That was fun!” he said. A few feet away, Clack put her arm around a contestant who didn’t finish in the money. After more than three decades as a teacher in Flint, she knows how to read a crowd and how to console. “You did a nice job, young man,” she said to a guy who could be in his mid-20s. “You can be proud of yourself.”

For a moment, the mayor’s race almost seemed secondary. And fixing Flint could wait a while. We were just a bunch of people enjoying some air-conditioned camaraderie on a gloomy midsummer day. Or maybe I just drank too much of the Kool-Aid.