Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett on His Career in Public Service

The former Michigan Supreme Court justice makes our 2021 Hour Detroiters list, a roundup of people who are quietly ­— and sometimes not so quietly — enriching life across the region
Conrad Mallett Jr.
Conrad Mallett Jr.

At 67, Conrad Mallett Jr. could be resting on his laurels. The first Black person to serve as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Mallett then spent two decades at the upper echelon of the city’s hospital system administration before alighting this spring on the 11th floor of City Hall to serve as Mayor Mike Duggan’s deputy mayor. Mallett, a Supreme Court justice from 1990 to 1999, says he felt obliged when Duggan, his old boss at Detroit Medical Center, asked him to help see the city through the COVID-19 crisis and the economic recovery that hopefully follows.

From his 11th floor office, with its luminous view of the Detroit River, Mallett talked to Hour Detroit about his legal accomplishments, his thoughts on internet activism, and how his public service career will end.

Hour Detroit: You were the state’s chief justice. What are you doing now in city government?

Conrad Mallett Jr.: This is where I started, literally on this floor. I was the chief executive assistant to Coleman Young. This work here is just very natural for me. My father was a Wayne County commissioner for eight years. He was a great believer in regional government. So politics was what I did. I ran my father’s election when I was 16 and was involved in politics at a very high level from 18 on up.

But then why leave the court before your term expired?

Dr. Claude Young, who was Coleman Young’s cousin and the founding Detroit chapter leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, called me up when I had just been elected chief justice. Dr. Young said, “Conrad, we all admire the work that you’re doing, but if you’re ever going to be able to secure your family’s financial future, you got to get off the bench and go to work harder than you are now.” So I stayed two more years, and then I left. Unfortunately, judges are wildly underpaid. As much as the work was important, and as great as the contribution that I was certain I was making, I also had a responsibility to my family. So I had to leave the bench and return to the private sector.

Why did Duggan ask you to do be deputy mayor?

I’m a long, longtime trusted ally. We’d been political allies going back to Coleman Young and Ed McNamara. We had been together since Duggan appointed me president of Sinai-Grace Hospital in 2004. He knew this was going to be a tough year, and he was looking for a seasoned, trusted ally to come in and manage COVID-19 in an efficient, quiet, effective manner.

Conrad Mallett Jr.
Conrad Mallett Jr.
Just as you arrived, the Black Lives Matter protests began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. You worked with the great civil rights leaders of your era, so was it strange to have these young activists angry at you and the mayor?

No. I had a great sympathy for the positions that they were articulating. We really wanted to be sure that these young people knew that they could protest all day long. As long as these protests were peaceful, we were with them. I think we managed ourselves spectacularly. We did not turn into some kind of riot-plagued, violent municipality. You remember Gretchen Whitmer, Mike Duggan, and myself and others all walked down Woodward in memory of George Floyd? We had a lot of responsibility to make sure everything stayed calm, that we did not turn into Portland or Chicago. And we did.

There was that case where a police car moved through a crowd, and activists made that footage viral online with claims the officers were trying to kill them. How does that online component compare to the activism of your era?

In some instances, activism now is more performance art than actual protest. They hope to make a point that causes them to be recognized and then allows the message to be heard by more people louder and longer. 

Those activists don’t know how deep your history is.

Oh, yes. I was the best Free Press paperboy in the city of Detroit in the summer of 1967. Every day, I prided myself that my customers had their newspaper by 6 a.m. So it was 4:30 a.m. when I was out. It was hot. I had 200 customers. When I came home, I said to my father, “Daddy, I think the riot has started.” My father, who was chief executive assistant to Mayor Jerry Cavanagh, popped up, called the mayor, and then was gone for three days.

What did the Black Lives Matter protests accomplish in 2020?

Oh, a great deal. It took persons like myself who might, because of age and financial success, have gotten comfortable, and reminded us that we still have responsibility. It forced large corporations to recognize the concerns of the African American community particularly and the concerns of poor people in general. And you saw a response by the African American community on Nov. 3 in the presidential election. The African American community desperately wanted to make sure its voice was heard.

Do you plan to run for mayor? 

No. When I walk outta here with Mike Duggan after his third term, I’ll be 72. I’ll have made my contribution. And that’s the commitment that I made. 

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.