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Detroit's New Mayor Has the Best Job in Politics

If Mike Duggan gets the snow plowed, buses to run, and lights to stay on, he might just be mayor for life.

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(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

DETROITThis city is in ruins. You see it everywhere you look. And if you want to know how it happened, ride the elevator to the top of the Westin Book Cadillac, the city’s most luxurious hotel, peer out a window, and behold the historic collision of forces that brought Detroit to its knees.

To the right, you’ll see a towering structure, abandoned and rusted and foreboding. It stretches dozens of stories into the Detroit sky. No lights are on and no life is visible, only shattered windows and blips of illegible graffiti. Hundreds of feet below, at ground level, hangs an honorarium labeling Washington Avenue as “John Conyers Jr. Drive” after Detroit’s long-serving congressman—the man whose chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee was interrupted by news that his wife, the City Council’s president pro tem, would be following former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to federal prison for bribery. Finally, from the left comes the knockout blow. There, directly outside the hotel, plastered across an entire building, is a sign featuring a stunning silver automobile. It says: “The Best Knows No Alternative.” The advertisement, in the heart of Detroit, flaunts a Mercedes-Benz.

 

Abandonment. Political corruption. Foreign competition. These are the predators that teamed to send Detroit, once America’s fifth-largest city and a symbol of its industrial might, spiraling into an urban apocalypse. The race riots of 1967 sparked an exodus of whites to the suburbs. In 1974, Coleman Young became mayor and laid the blueprint for ruling Detroit through cronyism and vice. Around that time, the domestic automakers, which managed their books as ineptly as the city, began leaking market share to overseas rivals producing better cars at lower cost. This trifecta weighed more heavily on the city as the decades wore on, pressing Detroit toward imminent catastrophe. Finally, in 2013, with its tax base ravaged by population loss and its former mayor imprisoned on racketeering charges, Detroit did what its automakers had done several years earlier: It declared bankruptcy.

Shortly before the Motor City canonized its financial collapse in federal court, the Detroit Free Press published an acerbic column by Mitch Albom. In light of Detroit’s historic deterioration and the state’s appointment of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to govern the city like an autocracy, he asked, “Why would anyone want to be mayor of Detroit?”

Fair question. There’s nothing desirable about a position that entails limited authority, much less over a bankrupted city crippled by crime, poverty, and desertion. Being mayor of Detroit, it’s reasonable to assume, might just be the worst job in American politics.

 

But then you talk to Mike Duggan, who took office in January. You hear about the narrow scope of his power, since Orr is responsible for the big and controversial decisions, including crafting a proposal for the city to exit bankruptcy by cutting pensions and screwing creditors. You hear about Dan Gilbert, the billionaire who is taking on the tasks of marketing and job creation that normally strain a mayor. You hear about the exceptionally low bar Duggan has to clear, thanks to the malfeasance or incompetence (or both) of previous administrations. You hear that his most urgent priority, like some Third World potentate, is to deliver basic city services. And you realize: Being mayor of Detroit might just be the best job in American politics.

BACK TO BASICS

This city is at war with itself. Signs of modern progress clash with archaic indicators of despair. Detroit is famed for its resilience, and, after years of being pummeled politically and economically, the city is off the mat and throwing punches. But it’s still absorbing too many blows. Here, the American Dream battles the American Nightmare.

North of downtown, on a subzero January afternoon, young professionals—most of them white—file into a beautiful, newly constructed coffee shop. Inside they laugh with friends over a warm beverage or pull out laptops and rap away at their keyboards. Outside, 50 feet from the door, a young black mother tucks two children inside her unzipped jacket to shield them from the bitter cold and blistering wind. They are three of perhaps a dozen people waiting at a bus stop; their ride won’t arrive for at least 30 minutes, and when it does, there aren’t enough seats to go around.

Farther up Woodward Avenue, the artery running from a vibrant downtown through Detroit’s forgotten neighborhoods and out to the wealthy suburbs, is a bouquet of recently opened businesses, many launched with a loan and a prayer. Their attractive exteriors contrast sharply with the filthy, abandoned, graffiti-ridden structure across the street, and could encourage the next entrepreneur to take a chance on this block. But around the corner, the sidewalks and parking lots are buried beneath snow. It has accumulated here over days, perhaps weeks; there’s more than two feet now. It’s even worse several blocks farther from Woodward, where the plows visit so rarely that some residents won’t drive to work once fresh snowfall begins because they know they’ll get stuck on the way home.

 

These same neighborhoods, some of them a stone’s throw from the nation’s first mile of paved road, are partially abandoned. Some houses are boarded up, others half-burned. Still, the once-bustling blocks have an enduring charm to them, as handmade mailboxes dot single driveways with iron carports and stone-slab porches. Sadly, the houses aren’t visible after dark. The lights don’t come on anymore, not in these neighborhoods and not in dozens more around the city. Detroit’s government hasn’t paid its bills, and as a result Detroit’s citizens must relive the pre-Edison era of residential darkness.

Buses. Snow removal. Streetlights. These are the most essential of services that any first-rate, First World city has under control. Detroit does not. And Duggan knows it.

During a lengthy interview at his downtown office, the new mayor swears he’s going to fix Detroit. Asked where he’ll start, Duggan, like the new coach of a last-place team, preaches fundamentals. Detroit’s rebirth will not occur, he says, until its citizens feel assured that they live in a functioning, 21st-century metropolis.

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“My job, at this point, is to provide basic city services,” Duggan says. “Make sure the police show up, the ambulances show up, the buses run on time, the streets are plowed, the garbage is picked up.”

Upon taking office, Duggan asked Detroiters to give him six months to prove he could change the culture. “A big part of our problem has been a feeling of hopelessness: that the garbage sits there for days; that [snow]plows may not come; that the street lights don’t work; that nobody ever deals with the abandoned houses. There’s almost a sense that we’ve given up hope,” he explains. “So what I think I can do in six months is, prove the city can be run competently.”

Ironically, this dearth of optimism is Duggan’s greatest ally. Incredibly low expectations have been set for the mayor of this major American city. Duggan knows that if he clears it, he’ll be rewarded. He’ll have bronze statues built to his likeness; buildings will be renamed in his honor. Amazingly, by restoring basic services to Michigan’s largest city, Mike Duggan could be mayor for life.

But this is Detroit. Promising leaders have come and gone, often leaving the city worse off than when they arrived. Duggan talks a good game, but so did the others. What makes this guy any different?

TURNAROUND ARTIST

Inside the headquarters of Detroit Medical Center, a sprawling hospital system that serves the city and its surrounding townships, Duggan once displayed a massive whiteboard. Every Monday, his senior staff members would state their goals for the week, and on Friday, they would evaluate them with either a black check mark indicating success or a red check mark indicating failure. According to people who recalled Duggan’s tenure at the medical center, never once did the boss witness three red check marks in a row.

It’s evident in speaking with Duggan that he knows how to get results; it’s equally obvious he doesn’t achieve them by intimidation. The mayor is short and balding, with a protruding belly and a timid smile. His tone is placid and deliberate, and his personality is scarcely charismatic. He struggles to schmooze. He does not drink alcohol. He does not travel with an entourage. He does not look, or act, like Detroit’s most powerful politician.

“Mike is not imperial or formal or imposing. He’s not a snappy dresser. He doesn’t look straight out of central casting,” says Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who previously ran the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush. Baruah, who worked with Duggan for several years when he sat on the chamber’s board of directors, chuckles before adding, “He looks like a guy who works at an insurance firm.”

The joke that Duggan doesn’t fit in here is rooted in the reality that he doesn’t. He is a white man hailing from Detroit’s suburbs, governing a city that’s nearly 85 percent black. He is, in fact, Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years. Duggan claims he doesn’t understand the fuss, and dismisses any talk of racial politics, saying the city “got past that a long time ago.” But not everyone believes it. Indeed, in speaking with Duggan, the wounds are fresh from a campaign that saw his rival, former Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon, launch what some residents viewed as divisive, implicitly racial attacks.

“It was settled before the campaign was over with,” Duggan says, when asked about the role race played in the mayoral contest. He pauses, then adds: “It’s just that my opponent didn’t realize it.”

Duggan looks like he’s tempted to elaborate, but stops himself. He doesn’t want to live in the past. He says the city is moving forward, and he insists that Detroiters considered his track record, not skin color, in choosing him to run their city. This sentiment sounds trite, except that it’s true. “When I was in barber shops and supermarkets and talking to the average man or woman on the street, it was just not an issue for them,” said Ken Cockrel Jr., the former Detroit City Council president who took over as interim mayor when Kilpatrick resigned in September 2008. “They did not care. It’s almost surprising the extent to which it was not an issue.”

A WXYZ-TV/Detroit Free Press poll in September asked respondents, 79 percent of whom were African-American, what factor Duggan’s being white would play in their voting decision. An astonishing 86 percent said it was “not a factor.” Six weeks later, Duggan cruised to victory.

“This city overwhelmingly does not care what color you are, or what religion you are, or where you’re from,” he says. “They want to know, what’s in your heart? And can you perform?”

Duggan can certainly perform. His reputation as a turnaround artist was set in 1991 when he took over the SMART bus system, whose deficit he eliminated by restructuring union contracts and slashing maintenance spending. He performed similar fiscal wizardry as deputy Wayne County executive, abolishing deficits to balance 15 consecutive budgets. He later served two years as Wayne County prosecutor, where he was credited with cutting Detroit’s once-astronomical murder rate.

But Duggan’s record at the Detroit Medical Center is the highlight of his résumé and was the cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. Duggan in 2004 took over an enormous operation that was hemorrhaging cash and nearing bankruptcy. By the time he stepped down in 2012 the hospital system was profitable and had added nearly 3,000 jobs, making it one of Metro Detroit’s 10 largest employers.

“Mike Duggan is the most outcome-driven CEO I’ve ever met,” says David Egner, president of the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Egner, one of Detroit’s best-known and most respected civic leaders, leads an organization that boasts $170 million in assets that flow toward grants and philanthropic pursuits. Duggan, Egner notes, “turned the DMC around from leaking $60 million per year to being in the black. And he did it by holding all of his people—especially his senior people—accountable.”

Not surprisingly, Duggan says the hospital’s revival is “the model” for his approach at City Hall. He insists that “everything is the same,” whether directing a health organization or running a city, hence his obsession with the two things that saved the Detroit Medical Center: personnel and services. “Management is management. So you get the right people into the right jobs, and you get them to deliver the services they’re supposed to deliver,” Duggan says. “I learned in the hospital business that if you do the basics very well, the results will take care of themselves.”

WHO'S THE BOSS?

In this case, he doesn’t have a choice but to focus on basics. Detroit is under the supervision of Orr, who was appointed emergency manager last year by Gov. Rick Snyder. Orr, a black attorney from Washington, is tasked with doing whatever it takes to balance Detroit’s books—cutting pensions for city workers, restructuring creditor agreements, auctioning off Detroit’s art collection, or even selling its water system to the suburbs.

The emergency manager controls Detroit’s finances, which clouded Duggan’s victory in November. Orr easily could have rendered the new mayor a figurehead, much as he did with Dave Bing, Duggan’s predecessor. But in December the two highly ambitious men struck a deal: Orr kept control of city finances (and, notably, the police department), while Duggan was authorized to run the city’s day-to-day operations. This power-sharing agreement allows the new mayor to break in by focusing on exactly the issues he obsessed over during the campaign—streetlights, snowplows, bus delays, and abandoned homes.

“Kevyn Orr and I have a very professional relationship. We don’t have any trouble understanding what we’ve each agreed to do.” Duggan says. “I have plenty of things to solve. And in eight more months, he will move on, and I expect the transition back to elected leadership of this city to be seamless.”

Of course, nothing is ever “seamless” with Detroit’s elected leadership. The City Council has been a disaster for decades—highlighted by screaming matches, corruption, and racial innuendo—and that dysfunction is slow in abating. (One week after Duggan was sworn in, President Pro Tem George Cushingberry was pulled over with an open bottle of alcohol and marijuana in his car; he was ticketed for failing to signal, and several days later apologized to the council for “driving while black.”) Duggan maintains he has good working relationships with today’s council members, but that could change quickly once he, not Orr, is charged with making difficult decisions.

Indeed, although Duggan would never admit it, Orr’s presence does him an enormous favor. The emergency manager, whose appointment was wildly unpopular in Detroit, bears the brunt of criticism from residents and city officials who oppose the bankruptcy blueprint. The tough choices required to make Detroit solvent—and the ugly repercussions certain to follow—are being attributed to Orr, not Duggan. The new mayor, in other words, won’t have bankruptcy blood on his hands.

“It’s certainly helpful that those tough calls are being made by someone else,” says Maureen Krauss, vice president of economic development at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “Mike Duggan can work on those fundamental city services now, with Kevyn Orr taking care of the necessary items to right the city, and that gives him a bit of a buffer.”

However, as Duggan knows, that “buffer” will soon evaporate. Orr recently submitted a “plan of adjustment” in federal court detailing Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy, and has said he plans to leave in September and return the city to democratic rule. At that point, Duggan’s honeymoon period will be over and the harsh realities of running Detroit’s sprawling, disjointed government will take hold.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

The phones won’t stop ringing.

Not 30 seconds go by without another piercing shrill from behind the receptionist’s desk. The lobby outside the mayor’s office is small but noisy; three women are answering calls and scribbling notes. It’s been like this since the day Duggan took his oath in January, one says. Detroiters have been calling to request the new mayor’s assistance with everything imaginable—the vacant house on their block, the dope dealer on their corner, the trash dumped on their driveways. Some callers want to speak to Duggan right then; other citizens stroll into the lobby, asking to leave a personal note for Hizzoner.

Previous leaders may have set the bar low, but Detroiters are expecting Duggan to raise it—and fast.

There are tremendous advantages to Duggan’s tenure beginning after Detroit’s bankruptcy was filed; there is also an obvious downside. Civic leaders have sold bankruptcy to Detroiters as a fresh start, an opportunity to shed old baggage and begin building a modern city. “The bankruptcy represents a reset for the city on a number of fronts,” says Jim Boyle, who runs the New Economy Initiative downtown.

With that fresh start, however, comes increased expectations, especially for the self-proclaimed turnaround specialist. If Detroit exits bankruptcy and city services do improve, suddenly Duggan will be asked to do more than flip on streetlights. He says he welcomes that challenge, and guarantees he’ll run city government with the “competence” that’s been lacking. Of course, that’s an easy claim to make when you don’t yet control Detroit’s finances.

Indeed, it’s easy to see why people joke about nobody wanting Duggan’s job: There’s much to do, and little to do it with. The city is big—bigger than Miami, Pittsburgh, Seattle, even Washington—with 139 square miles that require policing and basic maintenance. Many of those square miles are now half-empty, the result of a decades-long exodus to the suburbs that siphoned the city’s population and suffocated its tax base.

“The one thing that has to be kept in perspective,” says Cockrel, “is that a big reason city-service delivery remains a major problem in Detroit is because of population shift. The reality is, Detroit at one point was home to roughly 1.8 million people. At this point, according to the most recent census in 2010, Detroit’s population was a little over 700,000.”

City departments are still configured to service that larger version of Detroit. “We don’t have that amount of people in town,” Cockrel says. “And the people who have left have taken the tax base along with them, which means you have fewer revenues to actually deliver those services.”

Bankruptcy can wipe the slate clean, but it can’t repopulate a city and increase its revenues. Barring a sudden infusion of new residents, Duggan will one day confront the same conundrum his predecessors did: It costs money to keep those sparsely populated areas lit, and Detroit doesn’t have much to spend.

SPREADING THE WEALTH

Two weeks after Duggan took office, the Detroit Lions introduced Jim Caldwell as the team’s new head coach. Caldwell, like Duggan, inherits an inept operation that’s been in a state of decline since its heyday in the 1950s. In his introductory press conference, blocks from City Hall, Caldwell said he wanted his players to be “steel wrapped in velvet”—tough and nasty on the football field, gentle and kind in the community.

Ironically, Detroit is just the opposite: a city of velvet wrapped in steel. The downtown area is attractive and secure, with new businesses dotting an urban landscape lined with grand, historic architecture. Surrounding downtown, however, are some of America’s ugliest sites (like the old Packard automotive plant, 3.5 million square feet of charred desolation) and most dangerous blocks (such as Mack Avenue, where abandoned homes allow the criminal element to rule).

Luckily for Duggan, Dan Gilbert wants to change that. A billionaire and Detroit native, Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Rock Ventures, the umbrella entity that includes online lending giant Quicken Loans. In the past four years, Gilbert has invested nearly $1.5 billion in downtown Detroit, snatching up more than 40 properties and moving 12,000 of his employees in from the suburbs to occupy them. More than just a financier, Gilbert has morphed into a salesman and security officer for the city, luring new businesses downtown and protecting his massive investment with a state-of-the-art surveillance system that supplements an understaffed and underfunded Detroit Police Department.

Gilbert almost single-handedly has resurrected downtown. But Detroit will never again be a world-class metropolis, he argues, if its neighborhoods rot around a revitalized core. That’s why Gilbert, as cochairman of the privately funded Detroit Blight Task Force, has teams surveying the city’s 382,000 parcels of land, a project that when finished will yield his organization “an incredibly comprehensive database that no other city in America has.” With that information in hand, Gilbert’s team will submit a proposal to government officials recommending the elimination of “every single piece of blight” in Detroit. “Not part of it, not some of it, not most of it, but all of it,” Gilbert says.

Of course, this would be incredibly expensive—somewhere north of half a billion dollars. That’s a big bill for a bankrupt city, even if Duggan succeeds in winning help from Washington. But Gilbert sounds prepared to pick up a hefty chunk of the tab, knowing it will boost both his city and eventually his bottom line.

Count Gilbert as yet another extraordinary advantage Duggan enjoys as Detroit’s mayor—a native private-sector partner willing to spend billions of his own dollars building, securing, and cleaning up the city.

Not surprisingly, the two men are quite fond of one another. “He’s going to be fantastic. He’s an operator,” says Gilbert, a major contributor to Duggan’s campaign. “Running a city is like running a large business, and that’s what we’ve been lacking here for decades—someone with the business know-how to handle the execution of simple, daily business functions.”

Beyond the basics of lighting and buses and snow removal, Duggan makes it clear that housing is a priority. He has been meeting with federal officials in hopes of establishing policies that move Detroiters into the city’s salvageable housing stock before plans are drawn up to begin demolishing vacant structures en masse. Outside of that idea, however, Duggan agrees with Gilbert that blighted buildings in Detroit must go, and he will likely accept the billionaire’s assistance in financing such an ambitious operation.

Some white residents shudder at the narrative of two white men teaming to demolish portions of heavily black neighborhoods. Duggan responds that he’s just doing the job he was elected to do. “You go out with me, and most of the time I’m the only Caucasian in the room. Nobody cares,” Duggan says. “What they want to know is: ‘What’s my plan for the abandoned house on their block?’ ”

Nothing quite captures the near-death of Detroit like its half-burned buildings. And nothing symbolizes the city’s attempted resurrection like efforts to tear them down completely and rebuild in their place. Appropriately, Detroit’s flag features a Latin phrase Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, which means: “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

THE LONG HAUL

People here want badly to believe that things are getting better. Ask them, and they’ll tell you again and again that they feel Duggan’s positivity, and yearn to trust it. But this is Detroit. Optimism must be guarded. Hope must be cautious. You see the progress being made, but you curb your enthusiasm, conscious of the long road to restoration.

Certainly, this is a city no longer on life support. Millennials are moving in. The automakers are coming back. The new mayor is getting rave reviews. But it’s still in rehabilitation, working to put one foot in front of the other. This explains Duggan’s obsession with the basics; he knows Detroit’s capacity for improvement is inextricable from its ability to do the little things right. Keep the lights on. Get the buses running. Plow the snow. Collect the trash. Clean up the eyesores. Prove to Detroiters they live in a First World city.

Once Duggan runs the police, that list expands. Protect the people. Limit the dead bodies. Catch the criminals. Indeed, the immediate challenge Duggan inherits from Orr is public safety. Duggan says he’ll have a “very aggressive” plan to police Detroit, but cops here aren’t hurrying Orr out of town. They are thrilled with the emergency manager’s handpicked police chief, James Craig, whose aggressive style goes largely undisputed because his boss doesn’t answer to voters. Some officers privately fear that recent gains in public safety could be jeopardized when Craig gets a new supervisor, one who relies on voters to keep him in his job.

While there is little certainty about the post-Orr era in Detroit, one thing is known: Duggan won’t be left to run the city alone. Even after the emergency manager leaves, Michigan retains control over Detroit. There’s already a state-appointed financial advisory board in place. What degree of authority Lansing gives to that group—and how much power is vested in Duggan—are questions still unanswered.

Duggan already controls the fire department and is gripped with reducing response time. Other city services are coming along slowly, but residents see progress. Of course, once Duggan has a handle on the basics, a host of other issues will demand mayoral attention: regional economic cooperation, education reform, and job-training programs, to name a few.

If these challenges are dealt with deftly, further down the road he will face obstacles unique to successful cities: traffic problems, transportation shortages, and gentrification concerns. It would have seemed laughable not long ago, but with a blank financial slate, an influx of businesses, and a newly vibrant downtown, some local leaders predict Detroit will be dealing with these issues in five years.

Duggan certainly hopes so. If Detroit’s concerns in 2019 revolve around traffic jams and rich people moving in instead of out, that means city services are being delivered and issues of crime and blight are being resolved. And that, in turn, means Duggan is serving his second of many terms as mayor of Detroit. 

This article appears in the March 15, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Mike Duggan Has the Best Job in American Politics.

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I find them informative and appreciate the daily news updates and enjoy the humor as well."

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