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
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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