The Happy Warrior

Out of bankruptcy and free of emergency management, Mayor Mike Duggan works long hours to rebuild Detroit — and he’s having a ball


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Photograph by Brad Ziegler

Mike Duggan is perhaps the most improbable mayor in Detroit’s long history — and possibly the most important. But that’s likely not something he spends much time thinking about.

“I’m not an introspective type of person,” he told me. Other mayors over the years have sketched out visions when I’ve asked them where they saw Detroit being in a decade. Not Duggan. 

When I ask, he says brusquely, “I don’t know. People in this city aren’t interested in somebody talking about what’s going to happen a decade from now. They’re living [near] abandoned houses, they’re worried about crime  ... worried about their schools.

“We’re really focused on what we are doing next week, what we are doing next month, what we’re going to be doing in the next year.”

Fair enough. One thing they aren’t worried about is streetlights. By the end of June, the lights were finally fully functioning in virtually all Detroit neighborhoods. That would have seemed a dream a few years ago, when most streets were menacingly dark and other mayors had said the task of getting the lights back on was technologically overwhelming.

But Duggan did it.

The fact that he is Detroit’s 75th mayor may be the most improbable story of all. 

Like many local baby boomers, he’s from Detroit (born on July 15, 1958). But he lived most of his adult life in suburban Livonia.

Three years ago, he moved back to Detroit for one reason: to run for mayor. That seemed at first like an impossibly crazy idea. Detroiters hadn’t come close to electing a white mayor in four decades, let alone one who only moved in to run for the office.

But those weren’t normal times. The city was on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Duggan had a reputation as a man who got things done — especially after his team turned around the finances and drastically improved services at the Detroit Medical Center when he was its CEO (2004-12). He has also won notice as deputy Wayne County executive, and later as county prosecutor.

Would the nearly all-black electorate of Detroit elect him? They almost didn’t have a chance. On a technicality, a judge ruled him off the September 2013 primary. But Duggan mounted a ferocious write-in effort, and stunned experts by winning more votes than all the candidates on the ballot combined. A fairly easy November victory over Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon followed. 

But nothing else looked easy. Kevyn Orr was still the city’s emergency manager and technically held virtually all the power. City Council, which was expected to re-elect Saunteel Jenkins president, instead chose Brenda Jones, who in the past had often been at odds with Mayor Dave Bing.

Duggan built solid partnerships with both. 

Last November, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s carefully constructed Plan of Adjustment, clearing the way to exit bankruptcy. 

The mayor has been a seemingly tireless “happy warrior” since, cutting deals, firing up the troops, and making himself visible in city neighborhoods.

Hour Detroit got Duggan to take half an hour to discuss the city. 

HD: The city is out of bankruptcy. It’s solvent now. But it’s pretty tenuous, isn’t it? 

MD: It doesn’t feel tenuous at all. Our finances are tight, but they are on solid ground. We are going to finish this [fiscal] year, which ends with a budget surplus for the first time in 13 years. I’m pretty confident we’re going to get through 2016 and we are right now planning what we need to do for 2017. If we run this city effectively, I think we are going to have a string of balanced budgets.

HD: Some say the main challenges in the way of city growth are crime and the schools. Agree?

MD: Yeah. Blight I would add to that as well. 

HD: First, crime. What needs to be done?

MD: We’ve got to get people to stop shooting people. Really, when you look at our crime statistics, the last two years, they’ve been excellent with one exception. Our homicides are up and our nonfatal shootings are up. Everything else is down dramatically. We have people in this community who are settling their beefs with guns. There have been a lot of cities in this country that have convinced their criminal element not to settle their beefs with guns … we were doing very well here in the city when I was [Wayne County] prosecutor [2001-03].

We’re going to [work] with the U.S. attorney and the prosecutor to make it predictable that if you commit a crime with a gun, the full resources of the police, the prosecutor, and the federal government will come down — not just on you, but on your entire group.  … As unusual as it sounds, criminals are making risk-reward decisions every day, and they are deciding whether to use guns. In a lot of cities  … they’ve made the decision to leave guns out of their criminal activities.

HD: Do you need new legislation?

MD: No. We’ve got all we need.  … If you look at what New York did — they went from 4,000 murders now to 300. But they did it over a period of 20 years.  … And as your shootings go down, your detectives have that much more time to spend on the cases that remain. So it is going to be a sustained, multiyear approach. 

HD: You’ve said you don’t want to run the Detroit Public Schools.

MD: I definitely don’t want to run the schools. I don’t have the management capacity.  … If I thought I could run the schools better than they are being run now, I would volunteer. But we still have much too much to do — getting violence down in the city, getting buses running on time, etc.

HD: Is there a role you’d be willing to play?

MD: I proposed and supported the [Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren’s] proposal.  … If the legislature adopts that, I’ve indicated I’ll play the role the coalition has recommended.

HD: Which is?

MD: Essentially to have a single authorizing entity [appointed by the mayor] for people who want to open and close schools in the city. We’ve got 200 schools in the city today, 100 charter and 100 DPS, and 150 of them have opened and closed in the last six years. The system is in complete chaos right now. There’s got to be stability … so I have suggested what I think is an appropriate role, but I’m not interested in running the schools, hiring the principals, providing the curriculums . …

HD: Is there too much dependence on folks like Mike Ilitch and Dan Gilbert?

MD: Is there too much dependence on General Motors and Chrysler? You try to make this community attractive to everybody  ...  we’ve got a whole lot of small business people starting businesses in town.

HD: Are we putting too many eggs in one basket? Has Detroit given Ilitch too much in connection with the new arena, for example?

MD: I don’t know that we’ve given anybody anything. [We are] just trying to create an environment where people can invest and open businesses.

HD: Why did you want to do this? How long had you thought about wanting to be mayor?

MD: A lot of things came together at the same time. One, I was just really pissed off at the streetlights always being out. … That was kind of a spark. The second was my youngest son left for college in September 2012; it’s not something I would have done if I still had a kid at home. And I looked at what's happening, and I realized that Mayor Bing wasn’t going to succeed.

I looked at the magnitude of what had to be done. And I couldn’t walk through the halls of the DMC every day without Detroiters saying, “Look, you gotta run for mayor.” I had done everything I wanted the DMC to do — it’s on long-term sound financial ground. It just seemed like I couldn’t watch the city go down and not try to help.

HD: You’ve been mayor for a year and a half. Has anything surprised you?

MD: Just the demands on my time. Everyone has “just one event” they want me to make.  … It’s been critical to me to stay in touch with the people who live in the neighborhoods. I got elected off those 250 house parties [during the campaign]. Once a week I sit in a living room with neighbors continuing to talk.  … But I wish I could spend more time in the office digging deeply into these problems. There’s a real expectation [that] you’ve got to be accessible. And so balancing ... how much time I spend in the community versus how much time I spend in the office  … basically I spend eight hours a day on each.

HD: Mayor Bing saw some neighborhoods as more salvageable than others. Do you disagree?

MD: Yeah. We don’t do that. My campaign theme was that every neighborhood has a future. That future doesn’t necessarily mean every neighborhood will look exactly like it did before. You’re seeing that in Brightmoor. [It] is going to include areas of single-family homes, but it is also likely to include areas of gardening and farming.  … We’re working with the leadership of the neighborhood for a vision for their neighborhoods. I do think every neighborhood has a future, though it’s not necessarily a future where every lot is occupied by a single-family home.

HD: You’ve been pretty emphatic that you aren’t running for governor. Does that mean that you’re committed to a second term as mayor?  

MD: That’s up to the voters. In my business you don’t get to determine that.

HD: But you are running for a second term?

MD: Yeah. I’m going to — if people a year from now are as supportive of me as they are today.  … Today, the people of the city are strongly behind me. But in my business, that can be very fickle.

HD: How long is too long to serve as mayor? Coleman Young served five terms.

MD: He did a lot of things right. But you get to a point where it’s hard to keep your team, and right now [they’re] all working 14- to 16-hour days. Can you sustain that? I look at the last term of the McNamara administration (as Wayne County executive), and I think even Ed McNamara would tell you he stayed a term too long.  … I don’t really plan that far ahead. But I won’t need the voters to throw me out. If people aren’t supportive of me, come re-election time, I’ll go. 

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