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Business > Politics and Prejudices

Up against Goliath

Is the bridge baron pulling the strings against Gregg and Rashida?

 

Published 8/26/2009

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Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun is an 82-year-old billionaire, one of the richest people in the world, according to Forbes Magazine's annual ranking. He lives in Grosse Pointe, and owns, among other things, the Ambassador Bridge, the hulking ruin of Michigan Central Station, and vast trucking operations, organized under his holding company, CenTra, Inc.

Rashida Tlaib, 33, lives in a modest home in southwest Detroit, the area where she grew up and that she now represents in the Michigan Legislature. Her parents were Palestinian immigrants. She was the oldest of 14 kids, and somehow managed to earn both a college and a law degree. You might expect her to be an ally of Moroun's, who is of Middle Eastern background himself. But you would be wrong.

Gregg Ward, 48, works with John, his dad, operating the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. They are the only carrier in this area licensed to take trucks carrying hazardous materials across the Detroit River. When times are good, they ferry maybe 50 trucks a day, compared with the 9,000 that cross the Ambassador.

These days he has fewer customers. He suspects that lots of hazmat comes across on Matty-owned trucks, but can't prove it. He's trying to make a living, but says the firm isn't quite breaking even these days. His wife, a former Icelandic diplomat, gave up a career to marry him. They are devoted to their two kids, one of whom is severely autistic.

In the past Moroun has offered to buy them out. But Gregg has integrity. He thinks what Matty wants to do — build another bridge next to his old one — is wrong. Wrong for the city, wrong for Michigan, wrong for both nations, wrong from a national security standpoint.

Rashida Tlaib thinks what Moroun wants to do is wrong too, but she focuses on her few thousand constituents, disproportionately poor, jobless, black, Hispanic or all of those. "The air quality from all these trucks crossing the bridge is bad," she told me the other day, as she drove back from Lansing after a night session. So bad, she added, that a recent study showed 20 percent of the kids have asthma.

One of those is her 4-year-old son, Adam. Originally, she didn't have a strong feeling about the bridge. Despite rumors that she and Moroun were personally close, she said she has only met him once, at a meeting with another legislator. She asked him why he was resisting an environmental impact study for his proposed second span — a project the government of Canada opposes.

"I don't come in and tell you what to do in your back yard," he said.

She was repelled by the arrogance, not to mention what increasing truck traffic would do to her people's health. That doesn't mean she is "jumping up and down" with enthusiasm for a new, internationally owned bridge about a mile downriver, an option pushed by a consortium called the Detroit River International Crossing Inc. Most of both nations' political and business leaders favor the DRIC bridge, and, on balance, Tlaib does too.

For one thing, the pollution would be somewhat dispersed. And "at least, since it is a public project, it should be easier to have transparency and accountability, and maybe a community partnership agreement."

For her, the last straw may have come at the Mackinac Conference in May, when she ran into the heir apparent to the Moroun empire, Matty's only child, Matthew. She told me that she suggested the bridge company build an asthma clinic for her folks.

He more or less laughed at her.

Rashida Tlaib is primarily interested in what the rich and powerful will do for her constituents. She has a special bond with them; she is both one of them, and uniquely different. She knows what it is like to be poor; there were 14 kids in her family, remember, and her dad worked on the line at Ford.

But her voters are predominantly Christians — mostly Catholics and Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal and Church of God in Christ members. They don't care that she is Muslim. Tlaib is, by the way, only the second Muslim-American woman to be elected to any state legislature in this country.

Her story is too improbable even for Hollywood. She was a community organizer a few years ago when she met state Rep. Steve Tobocman. He was so impressed that he hired her as a senior policy analyst, then chief of staff.

She is a Muslim with Palestinian roots, remember. Tobocman is Jewish; his Polish grandparents fled the Holocaust. How did that work out? She was his choice to run for the seat last year, when term limits meant his time was up. The district is mostly black and Hispanic; Arab-Americans are less than 2 percent of the population. She won the primary easily, and got 90 percent in the general election.

Even so, when it became clear Tlaib opposed Moroun's attempt to build a second bridge, Detroit's notoriously sleazy political consultant, Adolph Mongo, slimed into the picture. He now works — surprise — for the Detroit International Bridge Company, alias Matty Moroun.

He announced he was "exploring the possibility" of recalling Tlaib, claiming the international bridge would wipe out the Delray neighborhood. That might have been valid in, say, 1956. Today, the area is desperately in need of the jobs and revitalization a project like the DRIC bridge would mean.

Rashida doesn't think for a moment that a recalling can succeed. "But it will take some time I could have used to help my constituents, to help craft better legislation," she says.

Gregg Ward worries too. He thinks Moroun is trying to put him out of business. The government of Canada had promised $2.9 million to improve approaches to his truck ferry on their side of the river. Suddenly, that's been held up at the federal level. They are also, he says, charging him exorbitant fees for ice-breaking services, and throwing up other roadblocks.

He wonders if Matty, notorious for his campaign contributions, is throwing money around in Canada. But he intends to keep on fighting, no matter what. Ironically, if the DRIC bridge is ever built, it may well be certified for hazmat, which might put him out of business. He knows that.

Rashida also knows that opposing Matty could be hazardous to her political health. But like Gregg, she cares about something bigger than enriching herself, or a billionaire's desire to get even richer and more powerful.

There may be hope for some of us yet.


Campaign finance law update: Two weeks ago, I wrote about retired Wayne State University law professor Maurice Kelman's long and lonely efforts to get a ruling on whether former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's use of campaign funds to pay his criminal defense attorneys was legal.

Attorney General Mike Cox told me that an elected official had to ask for a ruling before he could issue one. Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land refused to ask. Other minor officials blew off Professor K's requests.

I then challenged state Sen. Gilda Jacobs (D-Huntington Woods) to ask for a ruling, and she did (may all the saints bless her forever). The attorney general has received the request, and is looking into it. Updates to follow.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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