Politics & Poker: Bing Has Been Active Donor to Michigan Democrats

Posted March 2, 2009 at 6:36pm

It’s often said that sportswriters are frustrated jocks who wish to take their feelings of inadequacy out on the athletes they cover.

[IMGCAP(1)]But rest assured — political writers aren’t frustrated politicians. If anything, we’re frustrated sportswriters. They get to hang out with superstars! We have to spend time with grubby pols.

Sometimes, though, the worlds intersect. Jocks run for political office. Then political writers get to use more sports clichés than usual.

Sports legends create a unique kind of political dynamic when they’re campaigning. Even after they’ve been in office for years, the sports clichés slip off the tongue (the pen? the computer keyboard?) with almost comical ease. Witness all the coverage in recent weeks about Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), the baseball Hall of Famer, throwing spitballs, or high hard ones, at Republican leaders.

This seems to have escaped a lot of people’s notice, but there’s another former jock currently running for office, Dave Bing. Bing finished first last week in a multicandidate, nonpartisan special primary for mayor of Detroit. He now advances to a May runoff with the beleaguered city’s acting mayor, Ken Cockrel Jr.

For folks of a certain age, this is a very big deal. This is Dave Bing we’re talking about. DAVE BING! A Washington, D.C., schoolyard legend. Probably the best basketball player in Syracuse University history. A hoops Hall of Famer, who was a six-time all-star guard with the Detroit Pistons and then spent a few more years as a key role player with solid Washington Bullets and Boston Celtics teams.

He wasn’t terribly flashy on the court, just steady and authoritative — a 20-points, six-assists per game guy who made all of his teammates better. And, oh yeah, he did all this despite a lifetime of blurry vision after he accidentally jammed a nail into his eye when he was 5 years old.

But equally important, Bing was part of the first generation of African-American NBA stars, in the 1960s and early 1970s,

who had a social conscience and weren’t afraid to express it. He’s been given a prestigious award for athletes who best embody the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.

So you might argue that his run for mayor of Detroit is simply an extension of the social activism and good works that began when he was an NBA rookie, helping out local Boys & Girls Clubs in the inner city.

Since retiring from the game, Bing has become a prosperous businessman, building a manufacturing company in Detroit with 500 workers that supplies metal stampings to the auto industry. He has also dabbled in real estate development.

Through the years, Bing has been an active political donor, giving regularly to Michigan Congressional stalwarts such as Sens. Carl Levin (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D) and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D) — whose scandal-scarred son, Kwame Kilpatrick, until recently held the job that Bing is now seeking. And he’s contributed to President Barack Obama and to former Sen. and NBA legend Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) back when Bradley was running for president.

Bing’s stats as a player stack up comparably with Kevin Johnson, the Phoenix Suns star guard of the 1990s who was a little more explosive — as befitting the evolution of the pro game — but had an identical body type. Coincidentally, Johnson was just elected mayor of Sacramento, Calif., after running a successful real estate and sports management business and doing a lot of philanthropical work. (Johnson has also been romantically linked, in the pages of the Washington Post, to Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s schools chancellor, but that’s another story.)

Bing’s campaign Web site calls him “a Detroit success story … a survivor … a leader for Detroit … a basketball legend … a pride and inspiration to Detroit.— There’s a fairy-tale quality to the story, as there often is when athletes run for office. It sounds almost too good to be true — and it’s a wonder that Detroit doesn’t just skip the election and coronate Bing.

But politics is tougher than any seventh game in the NBA playoffs, and some unflattering things have come to light about the former star during the course of the campaign — most significantly, that his businesses have been hit with numerous safety violations through the years (a crane operator was crushed in 2000). Also, Bing only moved into the city to run for mayor. His real residence — and where his wife still lives — is in a gated community in Franklin, Mich., a leafy suburb 20 miles outside the city.

At age 65, Bing is a dapper presence, and he looks to be every bit as in shape as he was at the height of his playing career. Cockrel, who is 42, is considerably more roly-poly. His late father, Ken Cockrel Sr., was very flamboyant — a radical lawyer who eventually wound up serving on the Detroit City Council.

In the runoff, Bing has considerable support from the business community, and Cockrel has the backing of many unions and community groups. But the United Auto Workers union is up for grabs — its members work at Bing’s plant. And the head of the Detroit National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who is a prominent minister in town, is also in Bing’s corner.

In endorsing Cockrel, the liberal Metro Times in Detroit called him “an earnest, hardworking public servant with deep roots in this city and a well-grounded understanding of how its government does — and doesn’t — work.— The newspaper also praised the incumbent for the smooth way he took over at city hall following the toxic sex scandal surrounding Kilpatrick, the city’s self-proclaimed “hip-hop mayor— who seemed to think that his ability to live large would be a point of pride to Detroiters.

The editorial went on to say that Bing was vague when it came to offering prescriptions for the city’s ills. “Bing’s success in the private sector is no guarantee that he has the political savvy to run a city facing as many problems as Detroit,— the paper wrote.

Of course, the same can frequently be said for former star athletes. Which is why like all overtime contests, this is one we should be watching to the end.