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.

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 01: Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan speaks at a Town Hall meeting at Impact Church November 1, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The election on November 5th will determine who will replace outgoing Detroit Mayor and former Detroit Piston great Dave Bing, who chose not to seek reelection. If Duggan is elected he will be the first white mayor of Detroit in nearly 40 years. 
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Tim Alberta
March 13, 2014, 5 p.m.

DE­TROIT — This 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.

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.

Duggan's Challenge National Journal

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.

“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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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. 


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