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All About Richard Austin

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Richard Austin spoke calmly and deliberately from behind the huge wooden desk in the impiessively-panelled officie: behind him was the seal of Michigaji's Secreiarv of State. "In l')76, we will bc attempting to eleet a President and a Vice President at a time when we have a President and a Vice President serving who were not elected by the people. At a time when the last persen we elected was forced to resign trom his office, when people have lost a great deal offaith in themselves and the system as a whole, and at a time when the nation is celebratingits 200th birthday." Despite the imposing surroundings, Austin's personable marnier makes liim easy to talk to, and lints at 1 1 10 reasons why, at bl, he is oite of Miehigan's most iuccessful black political figures. Richard Austin,-born in Alabama and raised ii )cimii inner city, is Michigan's firsl black retary o! State. In 1969, he nearly became Detroit's fust black mayor, losing hy loss than une percentage point to Roman . Gribbs. He had missed election to S%% Turn tu pugc -J M 1 ' All About Richard continuad frum cover the United States Congress by 43 votes in 1964, and became Wayne County's Auditor two years later. Austin is widely mentioned as a likely candidate for the Democratie nomination for this year's U.S. Senate race in Michigan. If he wins, he will become the first black Democratie Senator in U.S. history. Although Austin has achieved some notable firsts as a black man, he has fought hard against the stereotype of "black political leader", preferring, as he says, to be evaluated on the basis of his achievements rather than the color of his skin. He saw his election as Secretary of State in 1970 "as a demonstration on the part of the voters of Michigan that they were willing to consider eandidates for high office on the basis of nierii, regardless of their race, their creed, oí any other identification whicli shouldn't be important." Accordingly, he saw his re-election in 1974 as evidence that "my performance in office merited the voters' continued support." t000t Austin's father was an itinerant coal miner, "which meant tliat,-" he was unable to get ,0 permanent 00' employment at any coal mine." During World War L, he migrated from the coal fields of Alabama to the coal fields of Pennsylvania. He died when Austin was eleven, and Riehard's mother moved the tamily to Detroit. Richard grew up in a central-city neighborhood just south of the Boulevard, attended school Üiere and graduated from the Detroit Institute of Technology with a B.S. in 1937. Five years-later, he became Michigan's first black Certified Public AccountAustin became involved in politics because "I became interested in human rights. But the more I became interested in civic activities, the more I reahzed that the most important decisión affecting the hves ot people are made by people in government." As Secretary of State, Michigan's third highest office he has sought to "humanize the services of the departmcnt and make it easier for people to do business with the state." It is now possible, for example, to pay for services by personal check and to obtain license plates by mail. People whose driver's licenses are about to expire are now notified through the mail. The driver's license test is now given in fifteen different languages. Under Austin, the department has also expanded into consumer protection, licensing car dealers and auto mechanics. Perhaps Austin 's biggest achievement in lus current position, however, is the culmination of a three-year battle with the state legislature to permit voter registration in driver's license examination stations. "In the first month of the new program, we registered 35,000 voters. In November, we registered 42,000 people. Over a three-year cycle, we are going to add close to a million people to the voter registration rolls. DETROIT IN TRANSITION Growing up in Detroit, Austin saw the city change over the years. "When I first came to Detroit, it was the automobile capital of the world, a one-industry r-itv Fvprvthinp seemed to focus on f0 bile production. Then a great deal of that industry left the cilv.-'"'"''' Sinee 1950, the city has also -0' lost approximately 600,000 people, and that has liad a devastating effect on progress in the city and the capacity to raise revenues to pay for public services." To revitalize itself, Austin says the city will have to seek help from the state and federal government. "The city not only needs fünds to maintain services, but there is a rebuildingjob that has to bedone, because so much of the city is now dilapidated and so much of the housing has been destroyed to make way for expressways, the University-culture center, and the Medical Center. Detroit is a city in transition, in the process of becoming what appears to be a service center from having been an industrial center. There are a lot of dislocation problems, such as high crime, that require expenditure of large sumsof money which the city does not have." Austin was a member of the Michigan Tax Study Advisory Committee in 1958 (the Conlin Committee) and the Citizens Income Tax Study Committee of Detroit in 1961 . The Michigan Tax Study "set the tone for tax planning in state government for the next fifteen yeais or longer." Austin comments on the current efforts by the city to increase the tax on residents and non-residents: "As the city found il necessary to raise additional revenues, the Legislature was more reluctant to increase the tax to be paid by residents outside of the city. The reason is pretty obvious. There are more legislators who do not live in the city of Detroit in the Michigan legislature than there are who live in the city. So the majority would always prevail, and the prevailing opinión would be that if you are going to raise that tax, just raise it on the residents of the city of Detroit and leave the rest of us alone, even though we work in the city and live elsewhere. I woukl also say that that attitude is still prevalent in - the Michigan Legislature. It is going to, be extremely difficult to get the"""" Legislature to increase the amount 00t0 of -- i resident tax. I hope they wiuild maintain the balancé as it was originally conceived. "You have to keep in mind that the income tax was necessary because so much ut the property tax base was being eroded to build expressways, which facilitated the movement of people from the suburbs into the city and out. The only way the city could recover the loss of revenüe from the property that had been taken over by the expressways was to ask tor sonie payment ofrevenue from whatever has been earned from those who come in and go right back out." THE ISSUES IN 76 Austin, as lie up tlie Senate race. sees the 1 9 7 ( elections as a challenge to candidates to "articúlate the great needs of the people today and win back theii conrïdence." More than a leadership vacuüm, he feels that the national problem is that "we have not fully responded to the vast changes in our society. It may be that there is a need for more sensitive . sliip, but the system by which í"""""" we select leaders is one'' tliat discourage many gA sensitive people from aspiring. "I recall a remark made by Mayor Coleman Young. lic said 'this job of Mayor is a mean job. I tend 10 like it however, bul it is a mean job.' There aren't many people who wcmld like a mean job. not ifthey are well-trained and othei options are available to iliein. Jast think how many times President Ford has had a close shave. Look back and see what happened to George Wallace in 1972. Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy. There are a lot of reasous why it is difficult to get people who would be most sensitive to the great needs of the country to'day." While he says there "may be soine merit in it", he does not necessarily favor a re-opening of the investigation into the assassination of Dr. """ Martin Luther King. Austin contimied front page.5 Jr. "I woulii rather look for answers to the more basic problems confronting peoplc: how to provide cnough jobs, and how to feed the peoplc in tli is nation. We have a malnutrition problem in this nation, not to speak of the problems around the world, and we have a responsibility to do something about that, loo. This globe is shrinking to the point where we are all in this thing together. We have got to be concerned about the total quality of life of the people wlio popúlate this globe. "There is some value in reopeningof the investigaron. We have got to know the trutli. hut I don't think we should be totally consumad by the investigation." Austin evinces sontewhal greater concern hu anothct form ofcolitieal "sssassination" the and conviction of formei Michigan Suprente Courl Jüstice John Swainson, "li iv obviously One of the most unfortünatc occurrences in om state's history: II is nol often that y mi find a war nero, a man who lost bis leus white serving lus country and who thrcuiiih gril was able to rehabilítate himself ■ and sland up like any other man, even lo the point to become Governor of this state and later a jurist aiul .1 membei of the Michigan Supreme ('uiirt. It isn'l oliën tlial wc find a person of his calibei in vol ved in something that results in lus liavini! tu icsign trom a high posl like the Supjeme Court. "I think "the real tragedy, however, is that he had to resign, not because be was l'ound guilty of what tic was eharged with. He wás charged with having accepted .1 bribe, lic was noi puilty of having accepted ;i bribe. lic was found guilty Df having lold soracthing that was iiniruc aboul lus movements and his contacta and some üf his conversations in Ii is testünohy lo the Grand Jury. lic was ioiuid iimlty ot' PCIJUIA . "Think áboul 1! He was eharged by a convicted criminal ol wrong-doing whicli was nol proved. Bul in liis Bffprt to answer llic charges and liis nability to remember exactly all the events thai ocèiined al thal in lus liiv. he made some mista kes. The rcsuli is because o1 the accusation of a convicted criminal, wliich was proved latei nol to bc mie, a career lias been destroyed. I ihmk thaj s u greal trágedy." Aiisim soos the upcointng Biccntcnnial year as "an apport,unity to Icam froin the lesïoilii ol the past. in see liow to solve the probtéms ol tciday, and to sci some goals lor ourselves in the future. "I ven ainong blacks, a good deal luis been ccomplished in this 200-year period, and though we, as blacks, are not complete!) happj with the progress that'sbeen made wc certainly liavon'i gone everywhere we think we ought ti have gonc, aceomplishcd everything thal we teel we should we are very well pleascd thal wc are nol where we wcie." Maryann George, a rce-lancc writer based iu Ami Arbor, spenl three weeks inierviewhig politicaljigures likelv to enter Wchigan 's 976 Seiiate mee in order to compile iliis report.