If Detroiters can learn anything from the spectacle of the mayoral debates during the primary campaign, it should be this: Finger-pointing, name-calling and blame deflection may rally some voters, but it’s not the way to move the city forward. The us-versus-them mentality that’s persisted at City Hall for years hasn’t done Detroit any favors.
Strong leadership is one of the most essential pieces to the puzzle of rebuilding Detroit. Good governance requires a new crop of individuals dedicated to attracting businesses and families into the city. These leaders need to spend less time shouting about problems and more time solving them.
Residents who’ve remained in the city have had to endure hardship for so long, those challenges may have started to seem normal. But they’re not.
Once the bankruptcy ends and the emergency manager leaves, Detroit’s elected leaders will inherit a city that hopefully will be fiscally and operationally sound, providing the services citizens expect and deserve. It will be up to them to keep it.
How we got here
Detroiters have to take a hard look at how their city got to the point of requiring state intervention and the largest municipal bankruptcy ever.
Reginald Turner, an attorney with Clark Hill in Detroit and a longtime adviser to the city’s politicians, doesn’t have to think twice about where much of the blame should fall.
“I put a lot of this on Kwame Kilpatrick’s shoulders,” says Turner. “He wasn’t focused on governing the city.”
And when the disgraced former mayor left office early in 2008 and began his path to prison, it left Detroit drifting just as the recession took hold. “In the worst possible economic situation, we were leaderless,” Turner says. “He really set the city back in horrific ways.”
Of course, as Gov. Rick Snyder and others have stressed, Detroit has declined over the past 60 years. But Kilpatrick’s cronyism and careless use of city funds made him the poster child for corrupt politicians. He has faced years of legal troubles, and recently was convicted of an array of federal corruption charges and could spend the next two decades behind bars.
Rebuilding the city
To move on from the past, the election this fall is going to be integral to the city’s future, says John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University Law School who specializes in urban policy. And even though the city is under state control for now, it will be handed back to elected officials eventually. They’ll need to be ready.
The new leaders will be tasked with bringing more economic development to Detroit and encouraging people to rebuild the city’s decaying neighborhoods.
This fresh crop of leaders should follow the Detroit Future City plan closely. That blueprint, developed by public officials and community leaders, focuses on the city’s healthier neighborhoods, with the goal of more densely consolidating the population so that services can be delivered more efficiently. “It’s a very reasonable plan,” Mogk says.
Raising income in the neighborhoods is integral to the city’s comeback. As Mogk says, the 10 square miles of downtown and Midtown are experiencing a revival, but it’s the 130 other square miles where the greatest problems exist.
To attract a broader middle class, Mogk says the city must invest in city services, job growth and economic development. If successful, Detroit has the potential “to become a real leader and regain the world’s respect,” Mogk says. The whole world is watching Detroit, he says, to see how it grapples with the problems of urban decay.
Bankruptcy will deal with the long-term debt, but the city’s leaders will have to ensure Detroit doesn’t fall back on old habits. Vince Keenan, executive director of Publius.org, which promotes voter education, says officials must concentrate on re-establishing revenue and providing basic services that are so lacking — such as prompt police response and burned-out streetlights.
Keenan is optimistic that having seven of nine City Council members chosen by district will ensure a stronger connection between council and the neighborhoods, but council members can’t lose sight of what’s best for the city as a whole. Keenan was behind the effort to create council districts in Detroit; he just ran for a seat in District 6, but lost in the primary.
He argues the city’s new leaders must take a visionary approach. “They need to focus on the future — where is the city going to be in 10 to 25 years?”
Character is key
“The time demands more of city leadership than ever before,” says Keenan. “Leadership has to be open and honest.”
He’s says the city has to cultivate a better pool of candidates to run for office. The more strong choices available to voters, the better the chances they’ll make a good choice. “If you want people only to eat broccoli, only serve broccoli,” he quips.
Sheila Cockrel, a former 16-year member of the Detroit City Council, says future leaders should embody several traits — qualities that make strong leaders from the public to the private sector — including the courage to do the right thing even in the face of the shouting protesters who often pack council meetings. Pandering to the noisiest elements of the city, she says, must stop.
“The tone is set at the top,” Cockrel says.
She’s right. When voters go to the polls this November, they must choose the candidates who are most likely to set the right tone — one that will slowly and steadily lead Detroit to recovery.