2022 Hour Detroiters: Mayor Mike Duggan Has a Grip on the Motor City

The Detroit mayor is among the 13 locals to make our annual list of people who are making Motown a better place
Mike Duggan
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

That November morning after Mike Duggan soundly defeated Anthony Adams to remain mayor of Detroit, administrators cheerfully greet one another in the hallways of his office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. Behind a closed door, the sounds of laughter, cheering, and clapping are heard as staffers simultaneously celebrate a colleague’s birthday and their leader’s decisive victory (nearly 76 percent of the vote), making him only the second mayor in city history to be elected to a third term. The first, of course, has his name on the building.

Meanwhile, sitting in his office in front of a wall of windows overlooking the Detroit River, the mayor is back to work, uncovering the circumstances behind an illegal dump site. “I am not worried about an individual pile of garbage; I am worried about why that garbage is there,” says Duggan, 63, looking both gruff — his usual visage — and invigorated less than 12 hours after delivering his acceptance speech at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown. 

“So today,” he continues, “we went down a checklist, and I learned we are down eight DPW [Department of Public Works] crews that are removing garbage. Why? Because we have not been able to fill eight CDL [Commercial Driver’s License] positions. Why are those positions not filled? Because HR has a class going on right now. The way business works is the same way that government works. If the HR department can’t hire drivers, the only thing the people in the neighborhood know is that the illegal dump site has been there for five days and the city didn’t come. Their assumption will be that the city didn’t care. So, my job is to fix systems.”

He pauses briefly, then moves to a question about whether Detroit should allow the licensing of recreational marijuana stores. “I only want it if we can be assured Detroiters can own their fair share of those businesses,” he says. An ordinance giving special licensing preferences to residents who have lived in the city for more than 10 years was blocked by a federal judge in June, and a new approach has yet to be announced. They’re working on it, he insists.

It’s the attention to detail and a keen awareness of racial justice — necessary for the first non-Black mayor in almost a half-century — that has turned Duggan into a once-in-a-generation politician, says Stephen Henderson, who hosts Detroit Today on WDET and is a Pulitzer-winning former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. “He is most comparable in that way to Coleman Young,” Henderson says. “Detroiters say, ‘I know that guy. He comes around.’ People have not said that about many people. He is just a very skilled, very experienced politician. He understands how to clear away all of the rivalry and racial and cultural clutter and get people to focus on what he is doing for the city.” 

Fortunately, for Duggan, the campaign was a cakewalk. His opponents failed to make much hay out of controversies that Henderson says merely made him politically stronger. Most recently, critics accused him of inside dealings when he used city resources to solicit donations for a Wayne State University program run by Sonia Hassan, whose status as his girlfriend was not public knowledge until the scandal broke. In April 2021, state Attorney General Dana Nessel declined to bring any charges against Duggan in the matter, and voters similarly shrugged it off in August. In September, he married Hassan. 

Henderson says Duggan’s transparency appeals to voters: “He had the fortitude to say, ‘This is what I am doing with my life. I am marrying her.’ He is not apologizing for it or hiding from the shame one might associate with it. Detroiters are very forgiving.” Also, these flaps seem milquetoast compared to the corruption committed by past Detroit politicians, namely former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Henderson says.

Another case in point cited by Henderson is the fact that Duggan has paid no political price for the controversy that led to a federal probe into bid-rigging by the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Detroit Building Authority regarding demolitions of blighted houses. In fact, voters overwhelmingly restored Duggan’s authority over the program in a November 2020 referendum. “All sorts of people who don’t like the mayor thought he would never get that passed,” Henderson says. “But again, Mike said, ‘We made mistakes, and we are doing it differently now. We are going to take down these abandoned houses.’ It worked because everyone in Detroit knows what it is like to live near an abandoned house.”

Given his overwhelming first-place finish in August’s nonpartisan primary, Duggan refused to debate Adams, 65, a local attorney and one-time deputy mayor under Kilpatrick. Instead, he applied his war chest of millions of dollars to reminding residents of the city’s progress since he took office in 2014: guiding a bankrupt city to solvency; tearing down 19,000 abandoned homes and rehabilitating another 9,000; creating a program that led to 4,100 residents getting jobs at a Jeep plant; landing a deal to transform the old Michigan State Fairgrounds into a massive Amazon facility; and for the last two years, fighting a global pandemic that hit people of color and, in turn, a large part of Detroit, the hardest. 

Hakim Berry, the city’s chief operating officer who also worked for Duggan in his prior role as president and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, recalls being doubtful of Duggan’s style early on. “When I first met him, I thought, ‘This guy is not a CEO; he is not hierarchical enough,’” Berry says. “He would walk the halls and talk to everyone. As a manager and administrator at the DMC, I used to cringe when someone told me they spoke to the CEO directly about a problem. I knew he would soon be telling me to help that person. He has always been a roll-up-your-sleeves guy.” 

A Duggan mayoralty nearly didn’t happen but for the effort of Cynthia Pasky, now board chair for the Downtown Detroit Partnership and co-chair of the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board, who first met Duggan when he was a Wayne County prosecutor in the 2000s. In June 2013, Duggan dropped out of the mayoral race because of a filing error related to his residency, but Pasky announced she would lead a write-in campaign for Duggan in that summer’s primary. He got 52 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate and went on to defeat Benny Napoleon in the November election.

So why does a stocky white man from the suburbs keep winning elections in a city that is 77 percent Black? “He does what he says he is going to do,” says Pasky, the CEO and president of Strategic Staffing Solutions. “He gets out of the car, goes into barber shops, shakes hands, and talks to people. But more importantly, he hears them.” 

Pasky believes anyone but Duggan would have found the city’s problems insurmountable, but Duggan went to work restoring basic services, including streetlights and bus routes, and overseeing the emergence from bankruptcy with the deftness he applied to turning around the moribund DMC.

The pandemic presented Duggan with yet another unprecedented crisis. Berry, who leads the city’s COVID-19 testing and vaccine operations, believes they have been successful because Duggan leveraged his national prominence and connections to top Democrats. “His objective was getting help for Detroiters and making sure we could open the city back up so people wouldn’t miss a beat in their services,” Berry says. Early in the crisis, the mayor called the CEO of Abbott Laboratories when he needed testing machines to get the police and first responders back to work. And in January 2021, he called Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the White House to get vaccines administered at Detroit’s TCF Center (now Huntington Place). “When FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] visited, they were taken aback to see it was a drive-through center. We ended up being one of the first in the country to do that,” Berry says.

On a personal note — and the taciturn mayor rarely gets personal in interviews — Duggan admits the hardest part of the pandemic for him was the isolation from his constituents. “I am somebody who feeds off every week sitting in a living room in a neighborhood and listening to their aspirations and their pain,” he says. “I have not been able to do that for the last year and a half.” 

In his third term, Duggan can look ahead to a good problem that rarely visits any mayor: big piles of federal pandemic relief money that must be spent by 2024. Detroit received the fifth highest allocation of government funds — $826.7 million — of all U.S. cities.

The Detroit Future Fund, as Duggan dubs it, will help tick off a long list of items on his to-do list: clean out 80,000 vacant properties, create waterfront parks and improve vacant land, provide skills training and a path to well-paying jobs, and reduce violent crime. But Duggan also knows he must be careful to comply with all federal regulations: “I don’t want Republicans coming in here in two years and saying we misspent any money,” he says. (One Republican who will, no doubt, be watching closely is Duggan’s former police chief, James Craig, now a GOP candidate for governor. Of that candidacy, Duggan would only say, “I’m voting for the Democrat.”)

As resounding as Duggan’s electoral mandate is, he needed the support of the Detroit City Council. Six of the nine council members starting in 2022 are new, including Coleman Young II, Duggan’s opponent in a contentious 2017 mayoral campaign. “This man is as corrupt as the day is long,” Young told The Washington Post during that race.

Duggan seems unbothered and eager to cooperate, having congratulated Young on his 2021 victory. “He ran a campaign that was about including everyone,” says Duggan, who hopes part of his own legacy will be that he improved the tone of politics in the city. “I wanted to change the us-versus-them hateful campaigning where you ran against the suburbs, people who don’t look like you, immigrants, or Lansing. People should campaign on what you can do for people and what you stand for.”

Young, in turn, expressed gratitude to Duggan: “He reached out to me with an olive branch after the election four years ago, and he didn’t have to do that. We have sat down and talked to one another on many occasions. But if I think he is doing something that is not in the best interest of my constituents, I am going to fight like hell to defend them and do what is best.”

Anika Goss, the CEO of the nonprofit development think tank Detroit Future City, warns that Duggan has higher expectations placed on him now that he’s entering a rare pantheon of city leaders. “A third-term mayor can change the entire narrative of what Detroit is and what it can be,” she says. “We want this to be a place of opportunity, a place where you can build wealth for you and your family, raise children that can matriculate in school, grow up in a great neighborhood, and go on to a four-year institution or certification training program.”

Goss is excited to work with Duggan for another term but thinks a fourth would be too much for any mayor of Detroit. Pasky, who propelled Duggan into office, agrees: “He will have given a big portion of his life to public service by the time this term ends and should have the chance to do something else. But his third term will not be long enough. Four years will go by quicker than any of us would prefer.”

Duggan laughs about the speculation that he may seek a fourth term, insisting he hasn’t thought that far ahead. Given his consumption with the minutiae of his job, Berry says, he can’t imagine where the mayor would even find the time to think about it. “He checks and validates everything and will even ask me back at the office why a pothole has not been fixed.” Duggan says that’s not entirely true: “I usually call from the car.”

This story is part of the 2022 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2022 issue here.