Howes: Could Trump become Detroit’s next big friend?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

You’d expect Michigan’s top Democrat, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, to say good things about Barack Obama.

Just a few months into his presidency, he made the controversial decision to rescue Detroit’s automakers. His administration helped the city with blight and infrastructure. After a high-level meeting at the White House, his cabinet officers sliced through red tape so the city could better manage its bankruptcy.

And if you understand the pragmatic side of Duggan, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he’s quietly reaching out to Michigan Republicans to build ties to Donald Trump’s nascent administration, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

He should. Because like it or not, Trump becomes president at 12:01 p.m. Friday. His party controls both houses of Congress; Trump has signaled an interest in flipping the Republican script by targeting urban initiatives; and one of the most important components of Detroit’s revival is momentum ... and maintaining it.

A macro-economic slowdown that would undercut that momentum would be unfortunate. Unilaterally slowing it because of political differences with a new White House would be dumb. That’s why Duggan is more likely to look for ways to work with Team Trump than ridicule it.

This is familiar territory for the mayor. At a time of rigid ideology on both the left and the right, Duggan has forged a third way with the Republican-controlled Legislature in Lansing and Gov. Rick Snyder, also a nominally partisan pragmatist. The result: more comity and success than enmity and failure.

Connecting with Team Trump could be an apt parallel. The new president owes his improbable victory in part to Michigan, if not Detroit, voters. His alleged emphasis on economic opportunity and competitiveness dovetails with the business-minded ethos Duggan and Detroit business leaders are trying to foster.

Whether his administration — set to include Detroit native Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — delivers on any of his counter-intuitive urban vision remains to be seen. Detroit cannot afford to dismiss it summarily.

Standing on the sidelines in some form of protest might score political points, especially in Democratic circles. But it wouldn’t help the city draw on a full complement of potential federal resources — and that includes existing, even new, federal programs that could speed blight removal, infrastructure upgrades and small business development.

If anything real approaches Trump’s campaign-trail vision for urban America — and it’s way too soon to know — a bipartisan-minded mayor like Duggan would be smart to make sure Detroit can be at the front of the proverbial line. Because it needs to be.

This should not be surprising. We’re talking about a Democratic mayor who knows his roots well, but generally doesn’t let partisanship hamper his working relationships with Republicans. He thinks like a pragmatic business leader because he was one — which may be just the kind of combination to connect with the new president.

We’ll see. The arc of Detroit’s revival is something the developer-turned-president could understand. A mortgage mogul goes on a real-estate spree; fellow business leaders, eager to join the enthusiasm, follow; auto bankruptcies effectively lay the foundation for the municipal workout that follows.

And a Republican governor then works with a Democratic mayor to quarterback a revival showing no signs — yet — of flagging. In fact, it’s gaining steam: the QLine commuter rail is complete and will begin service this spring; the Ilitch family’s District Detroit development is set to open in the fall.

Relocation of corporate headquarters are happening. The city’s high-tech cred is getting a boost from startups, entrepreneurial investment and comparatively less expensive real estate. And the restaurant and bar scene is exploding, sure-fire markers that there are real people with money and choices behind the hype.

Detroit hasn’t seen this kind of economic ferment in 50 years. Nor has it seen leaders in critical areas — City Hall, the governor’s office, the business community — so closely aligned around common goals that recognize Detroit’s success is everyone’s success.

Whether the new president becomes another partner in that team is not yet certain. But Duggan, for one, is likely to push for an answer.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.