Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at the demolition of a building on the 2600 block of West Fort in Detroit on Thursday. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Six months in, Mayor Mike Duggan gives himself an incomplete.
He’s right about that. The mayor of America’s poorest major city, mired in an epic municipal bankruptcy, faces short-term power sharing and a mountain of challenges that cannot be overcome easily in one year, one term, even one decade.
But he is striking a more cooperative tone and showing progress, a sharp contrast to the petty, no-can-do records of his recent predecessors. In that, Duggan deserves credit for exceeding the very low expectations many Detroiters and business leaders are conditioned to expect from the city’s elected officials.
“Historically, political infighting often hurt Detroit’s ability to make progress,” Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan, wrote in an email. “The Mayor, council, business and civic groups often weren’t on the same page. He deserves high marks for dramatically increasing the cohesiveness of the city.”
It’s still early, of course. The city’s de facto CEO is its emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, architect of the historic Chapter 9 case heading for a confirmation trial next month. The hands-on Duggan doesn’t control the EM or the police department or the city’s bankruptcy case and all that implies.
Instead, the mayor exemplifies a maxim credited to Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who pastored a Detroit church in the 1920s: Accept what you cannot change, summon the courage to change what you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
Case in point: when Duggan failed to stop appointment of Orr, a law school classmate in Ann Arbor, as EM, he seized the opportunity to forge a power-sharing arrangement with Orr that is proving flexible enough to give Duggan and his team room to maneuver successfully.
He’s crafted a strong working relationship with City Council President Brenda Jones, a reliable member of the last council’s “no” caucus now transformed into a reliable ally of the new mayor. He works fellow Democrats in the state Legislature and Obama administration even as he maintains productive ties to the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, also a former CEO like Duggan.
He’s forged stronger ties with the Republican leadership in the state House and Senate, culminating in legislation pledging state support to the “Grand Bargain” for Detroit, as well as new laws regulating scrap metal and blight. He has signaled that Police Chief James Craig is likely to remain chief once the EM leaves.
He quietly worked to smooth differences between Republicans and Democrats, Detroit lawmakers and their outstate colleagues, to secure the Detroit rescue package. He made clear he’s willing to give Orr and the governor’s team the necessary transition time they may need should Orr’s 18-month term expire in September before a bankruptcy plan is confirmed.
Critics say Duggan also projects a bias for loyalism and control: His head of economic development is a lawyer best known for working high-profile deals for clients with names like Ford; his administration is loaded with staffers who followed him from Wayne County to the Detroit Medical Center, and now to City Hall — but not entirely.
His chief information officer is a recruit from Kentucky. And as much as Duggan can appear to play control-freak, and he can, the upside is Detroit appears to have a mayor who understands that paying attention to the small things can pay larger dividends over time because of the message that’s sent, what’s accomplished and who gets on board.
“He’s just a bulldog on that,” says Gerald Anderson, chairman of DTE Energy Co. The mayor receives daily reports on a lighting project that so far has installed 10,000 across the city over the past six months.
When the city is on plan, he asks whether more can be done. When it’s not on plan, he wants to know why — and frequently uses his Wednesday meetings to press the point as much as to spread the attaboys.
The results are not going unnoticed. For now, business and civic leaders will happily trade the mayor’s control-oriented management style for the cooperation and action he and his team so far demonstrate. Progress is slow in the neighborhoods, but the mayor’s attention on blight, scrappers, parks and empty lots nonetheless highlights a new reality emerging in Detroit:
For all of the city’s well-documented troubles, business and its allies in the foundation and non-profit community are pursuing an agenda of reinvestment that enables the mayor to concentrate his administration’s attention on the people living outside a reviving downtown.
Not a bad place for Duggan to be, frankly, notwithstanding the fact that he is sharing power with a state-appointed overseer. One of the dirty little secrets of the city’s bankruptcy is that the process will cleanse the city of unsustainable debt, labor contracts and some near-term pension obligations and hand the new package to Duggan.
Business sees this clearly, as does the mayor and funders of the Grand Bargain. They see in Duggan a mayor whose bulldogging leadership style, leavened with respect for business and both sides in the political process, is right for the times.
“I’m almost floored by how much impact Mike has had in six months,” said Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, pointing to stronger ties with council and “alignment” inside the city. “It’s a testament to how much leadership style matters.”
It’s too soon to know whether they’re right, especially with the overhangs of bankruptcy and an emergency manager. But the signs are encouraging — and that’s huge in Detroit.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.