The Beverly Hills Grill, miles and smiles away from the Detroit city line, is selected as a meeting place so that Karen Dumas might enjoy breakfast and conversation without being interrupted.
No such luck.
The female president of a suburban bank stops by the table to give her a hug of encouragement. A local radio personality pulls up a chair to offer words of support. A well-known political consultant clasps her hand warmly as he passes to his seat. Diners at surrounding tables whisper or point, prompting her to return the occasional glance or grin.
There’s no escape, apparently, from notoriety. Yet she seems pleasant and well-liked. Surely this petite, doe-eyed, attractive woman can’t be the Karen Dumas who allegedly ran the administration of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and almost singlehandedly toppled it? The tyrannical bully named in a lawsuit as causing a hostile work environment and causing top Bing aides to bolt City Hall faster than Detroit residents can flee the city? The chief communications officer for Bing and director of community relations for Kwame Kilpatrick who was forced to leave her $141,000-a-year position June 17 when Bing requested her immediate resignation?
Dumas shrugs and proffers a wry smile as she toys with her ham-and-cheese scramble. “I guess I’m kind of confused,” she says, “because we live in a city where we’ve maintained mediocrity so long. And that standard, or lack thereof, has penalized our growth, our economic, educational, and social sustainability. It’s our culture. And so to demand excellence and try to impart change — the very change that this administration ran on — and to somehow be penalized for it, like, ‘Oops, smack on the hand,’ what do you do?”
She pauses. “You know, excellence is not a four-letter word. It’s really not.”
Detroit media burst into a creative writing contest trying to find novel ways to describe her. Divisive. Vindictive. Machiavellian. Harpy. This year’s Christine Beatty. An “arrogant Alexander Haig.” “Cruella de Vil.” “The scheming wife of the senile emperor.” And with both Detroit daily newspapers running front-page photos of Dumas, 48, that looked suspiciously like mug shots constantly in early June, for better or worse, her public persona never has been higher than in 2011. It’s an ironic twist for someone who has relished working behind the scenes throughout her career. “I don’t do the ‘lampshade-on-the-head’ thing,” she says. And the recognition isn’t confined to the city.
“The response I’ve received from people all over the country has been almost scary,” says Dumas, who, rather than slink into hiding as many government appointees do after an ouster, held a press conference the afternoon of her discharge and appeared live on Fox 2’s “Let It Rip” interview segment that night. “I’ve gotten more than 500 private Facebook messages, 1,000 posts, emails, text messages. I went to Eastern Market the other day and felt like a rap star. I couldn’t take two steps without somebody saying, ‘Just let me give you a hug.’ ”
Even Kid Rock, for whom Dumas did publicity when he was still Bobby Ritchie, raced to her defense. “Karen Dumas is a great American,” Rock wrote. “She is EVERYTHING that is right with Detroit and I am proud to call her my friend.” She appreciates the support, but doesn’t need comforting.
“My father was from the Middle East and I grew up on the east side, so weakness is not in my DNA,” Dumas says. “People wanted me to be hurt by this, or crawl under a rock in disgrace, but I had no reason to. They want me to be critical of the mayor and the administration, but I have no reason to. The media was not going to let up on me until I left. The [Detroit] News is still sore about losing out on the Kwame Kilpatrick story to the Free Press. They were so anxious for another scandal, they wanted something to be there. ‘Unnamed sources.’ ‘Anonymous reports.’ All this Secret Squirrel stuff.
“This decision [to resign] was not about any one person. It was about what was in the best interest of the administration in a city of more than 700,000 people who desperately need leadership in decisions that impact their lives. People want to blame me for everybody leaving, and that’s just unfair. I think it was more a timing issue. People left for various reasons, health, retirement. They can’t give me the blame or the credit for that. But there’s no person I brought in who didn’t outperform the person they replaced, in any capacity. I’ll stand behind that.”
Thanks to the summer of turbulence at City Hall, it’s hard to find anyone in metro Detroit who doesn’t know of Dumas, but very little has been written about her. Here are some facts that escaped the media onslaught:
• She has been married for 20 years to Tim, a real-estate developer, and has two children: Kirby, 18, a sophomore at Syracuse University, and Jason, 16, a senior at U of D Jesuit High School.
• She has been director of public information for the City of Highland Park, operated her own successful marketing and PR firm called Images & Ideas, hosted the midday talk show on WCHB-AM for several years, and wrote a weekly column for the Michigan Chronicle that ended with her joining the Bing administration.
• She didn’t want the job. “I told the mayor ‘no’ three times,” Dumas says. “He kept saying, ‘I need somebody; you come highly recommended.’ I knew the mayor but had never worked for him. So I said, ‘OK, I will take it on an interim basis. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you and I both come out clean.’
“But the longer I was there, we saw that we shared the same work ethic. The majority of my career was spent in private practice, so I don’t have a 9-to-5, collect-a-check mentality. I associate being paid with performance. So I have a different approach.”
• She continues to meet with Bing to discuss matters of concern to the city, even though she’s no longer on the payroll. “We had lunch this week,” she says.
Bing’s biggest problem, Dumas says, is “He’s too nice. They see the fact that he’s nice and he’s trustworthy and they exploit his trust. They hated me because I was doing something, and I didn’t act like them. ‘Oh, everything is fine.’ No it’s not! I told him at the outset, if keeping my job means being a yes person, I don’t belong here. I’m not a bullshitter, I’m not going to lie to you or mislead you. So if that’s of value to you, fine. If you just want someone to nod and grin, wrong person.”
Leaning more toward writing a book than filing a countersuit, Dumas has been in contact with entertainment attorneys, literary agents, and others who can advise how to turn her career lemon into lemonade. “I’m a little nervous, but also excited about what this presents,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out, how do I maximize this? I think this is an opportunity for me, and I have to find people who know and understand there’s a dollar value to this. There’s money to be made here.”
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