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By Matt Helms and Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Saying the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts and easing pension cuts in Detroit’s bankruptcy are critical to the city’s future, representatives of Detroit’s three automakers on Monday committed $26 million to the grand bargain on which much of the city’s exit from bankruptcy is based.

The donations are about preserving the city’s cultural heritage and helping pensioners facing steep cuts to retirement benefits, but “most importantly this money is intended to help the Motor City get back on its feet again,” said Reid Bigland, an executive for Chrysler, which is donating $6 million to the DIA-pension deal. “This is really about being a contributor and working with those who are also committed to revitalizing this city.”

General Motors and Ford and their charitable arms also are donating $10 million apiece, a major chunk of the $100 million the DIA has committed to raising for the federally mediated deal in which ownership of the museum will be transferred to an independent charitable trust for the equivalent of $816 million. All of the cash will flow into a fund to help reduce pension reductions for thousands of city workers. DIA board chairman Gene Gargaro said that auto companies’ contributions have pushed the museum to 70 percent of its $100 million commitment.

There was poetry in the morning announcement being made in the DIA’s famous Rivera Court, home of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a masterpiece whose depiction of noble Depression-era workers in Ford’s River Rouge factory underscored the historic links between the auto industry, the city’s cultural heritage and the working men and women who will benefit directly from the grand bargain. It was Edsel Ford who financed the creation of the murals in 1932, paying Rivera $25,000.

DIA leaders continue to solicit corporate, individual and foundation gifts to reach its $100 million threshold, but there’s an even steeper financial mountain the museum still has to climb. The DIA must raise another $200 million or more in endowment funds during the next eight years necessary to fund annual operations when its tricounty property tax millage expires in 2022. The tax provides about $23 million in annual income, so the DIA needs a total endowment (investment fund) of about $400 million to cover the hole in the budget once the millage disappears.

“We’re making strong and steady progress on the grand bargain,” said DIA chief operating officer Annmarie Erickson. “We would like to get this wrapped up expeditiously. I think we’ll be able to turn our attention to the endowment in the near future.”

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, the federal mediator in the bankruptcy and the chief architect of the art-for-pensions grand bargain, praised as “heroes of the bankruptcy” all of the donors and retirees who are supporting the deal, as well as the political leaders who last week approved a $195 million contribution from state government.

“Today we are all Detroiters, we’re all Michiganders and we’re all DIA-ers,” Rosen said.

Governor Rick Snyder and Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, said it’s now up to retirees to approve the deal, and they strongly urged yes votes as the beneficiaries face a July 11 voting deadline. If retirees reject the deal, they face far larger cuts.

The city also must convince U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to confirm the city’s bankruptcy exit plan, called a plan of adjustment, with the grand bargain as its centerpiece. That trial is expected to take as long as five weeks starting later this summer.

Photo: ifmuth via Flickr

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at