These Detroit Expats Have a New Idea to Save Their City From the Outside

The Detroit XPAC will raise money from ex-Michiganders and endorse candidates at the federal, state, and local levels who they think can rebuild the Motor City.

The shuttered Michigan Central Station in Detroit.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
June 16, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

Ju­lia Farber, like count­less people who moved from De­troit years ago, watches the city where she grew up be­ing hu­mi­li­ated from hun­dreds of miles away.

De­troit has gone though dec­ades of polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion, eco­nom­ic de­cline, and pop­u­la­tion ex­odus. But while Farber can’t be there to help lead the Mo­tor City’s comeback, she has a plan from her new home in Wash­ing­ton. She is a cofounder of a polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee that re­lies on the money and guid­ance of De­troit ex­pat­ri­ates from around the coun­try. It’s fit­tingly called De­troit XPAC, and its lead­ers hope to save their old home.

The PAC, re­gistered at both the fed­er­al and state levels, will use con­tri­bu­tions from those in the di­a­spora to en­dorse pro­gress­ive can­did­ates who they think can help De­troit re­build its urb­an and eco­nom­ic land­scapes in an en­vir­on­ment­ally sus­tain­able way.

“We are just a bunch of people from Michigan, from De­troit, who really love this city and want to see it do­ing well,” Farber says. “It can be amaz­ing. And it’s get­ting there again.”

De­troit has come a long way since its height in the 1950s, when its pop­u­la­tion reached 1.8 mil­lion people. Today, the city has little more than 700,000 people. But many of its former res­id­ents still dis­play the De­troit ban­ner proudly. The idea, then, is to use those people who con­sider grow­ing up in Michigan “as the best part of their life,” Farber says, and who can reach in­to their pock­ets to help out.

There is something in­her­ently un­com­fort­able about a group of people who do not live in De­troit at­tempt­ing to sway loc­al elec­tions. Farber re­cog­nizes this cri­ti­cism but says that in the sev­er­al cit­ies where she’s lived, there’s an un­tapped en­ergy around young, ex-Michig­anders who want to do something for De­troit and de­serve to have a voice.

“There’s money out there that people wanted to spend on help­ing the city,” says Farber, who grew up in sub­urb­an Oak Park and Roy­al Oak. “Part of the reas­on we thought we should tap in­to the ex­pats is be­cause it’s a com­munity that isn’t be­ing fo­cused on, and yet we’re all over the coun­try. We wanted to prove that the bor­ders of Michigan don’t stop people’s love for the state or where they grew up.”

De­troit XPAC is a small op­er­a­tion right now, with a small na­tion­al ad­vis­ory board and a loc­al Cap­it­ol Belt­way ad­vis­ory board. Most of the people in­volved are young pro­fes­sion­als who work in urb­an design and on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues and are vo­lun­teer­ing their time. The PAC plans to launch sim­il­ar loc­al ad­vis­ory boards in Chica­go, New York City, San Fran­cisco, Den­ver, Los Angeles, and Flor­ida, where ex­pats there could fun­draise and host events.

“We wanted to prove that the bor­ders of Michigan don’t stop people’s love for the state or where they grew up.”

The PAC is cur­rently look­ing at four or five races — fed­er­al, state and loc­al — where mem­bers feel they can make a dis­tance. The group is ey­ing the race to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Sen. Carl Lev­in and a few House con­tests, in ad­di­tion to the Michigan gubernat­ori­al elec­tion and some oth­er state races. It hasn’t de­cided which races to en­dorse yet. For De­troit XPAC, this cycle is a tri­al run for the lar­ger test in 2016. Soon, the group will send out ques­tion­naires to dif­fer­ent can­did­ates in races in which the PAC plans to en­dorse. From there, the na­tion­al ad­vis­ory board will make its en­dorse­ment and de­cide which cam­paign to con­trib­ute money to.

While the eco­nomy there has shown re­cent signs of pro­gress — through the auto in­dustry, a boom­ing start-up cul­ture, and prom­ises from cor­por­a­tions to in­vest in the city — there’s still more to the re­cov­ery equa­tion. The city’s bounce-back is highly de­pend­ent on lead­er­ship, which De­troit has his­tor­ic­ally lacked, con­sid­er­ing the count­less politi­cians — from city coun­selors to may­ors — sent to jail on cor­rup­tion changes. And with a city that still struggles to ful­fill the ba­sic prom­ises of a mu­ni­cip­al­ity, like turn­ing on city lights and plow­ing roads, lead­er­ship is a fun­da­ment­al need.

“In the loc­al races, smal­ler dona­tions can make a lot of dif­fer­ence,” Farber says. Good gov­ernance and smarter zon­ing de­cisions, the group notes, are the next steps to re­cov­ery.

But while the group claims to be non­par­tis­an, Farber ad­mits that the group is likely to en­dorse more Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans. That just comes down to the pro­gress­ive core of the group. She has no prob­lem en­dors­ing a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an, should the situ­ation arise.

Much of the vis­ion for the PAC comes from the oth­er cofounder, Mi­chael Dorsey, who has known Farber pro­fes­sion­ally for sev­er­al years. Dorsey served three pres­id­ents in dif­fer­ent ca­pa­cit­ies as an en­vir­on­ment­al ad­viser, and he taught at Dart­mouth and Wes­ley­an. Born in De­troit, Dorsey does not hide his frus­tra­tions with the state and na­tion­al dia­logue sur­round­ing De­troit.

“There are people on the wrong side of the aisle who think you can de­fund De­troit, you can cut off its re­sources, you can ig­nore it, you can pre­tend it doesn’t ex­ist,” Dorsey says. “We be­lieve that we must have people who are think­ing through how to de­liv­er for the eco­nomy in the best in­terests of cit­izens of De­troit and to pro­tect the en­vir­on­ment.”

This is the kind of zeal that people from Michigan, es­pe­cially those from the De­troit area, have. De­troit ex­pats have enorm­ous en­thu­si­asm for their city, which if tapped in­to, could be a power­ful polit­ic­al weapon.

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