Howes: A different Detroit greets Democratic presidential wanna-bes

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Welcome to Detroit, Democratic presidential contenders. This place ain’t what it used to be.

The Motor City's downtown is bustling, target of billions in private-sector development led by the wallet of Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert and his family of companies. Its politics are changing, thanks to a business-minded mayor of your party who can manage coalitions on City Council and work with Republicans in Lansing.

Pedestrians cross a revitalized Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

Its financials are on much more solid footing, credit ratings agencies affirm, a product of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history and the legacy of discipline it imposes. And Detroit’s automakers are in much better competitive shape — and more environmentally aware — than when the last Democratic president took office more than a decade ago.

In his first few months in office, Barack Obama approved a taxpayer-funded bailout in exchange for sweeping restructuring at two of Detroit's three automakers. They produced nearly 10 years of rising profitability, big bets on electrified self-driving cars and the prospect of titanic battles with Silicon Valley for leadership in next-generation transportation.

Loserville it ain’t.

Instead, today’s Detroit strikes a tone unlikely to be heard from the Fox Theatre stage Tuesday and Wednesday nights as candidates bash each other and President Donald Trump: a collective belief that leaders in politics and business can jettison the self-destructive habits of the past, stop the blame game and move forward.

How do we know? Because we've done it here: Outstate Republicans in the Legislature and a Republican governor engineered a financial restructuring of Detroit that was quick and consensual; philanthropy and the corporate community contributed roughly $300 million, effectively matched by state lawmakers, to offset reductions to city pensions; business and political leaders worked to create a virtuous circle of investment and job creation.

And Michigan's new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, led a Democratic sweep of the top three statewide offices last November with a campaign focused on the prosaic functions of government — "fix the damn roads," press education reform, work across the partisan divide because she has to — not cheap shots delivered daily by social media. 

It may sound naively quaint in these hyper-polarized times, but partisanship isn't the fuel powering Detroit out of a decades-old ditch. Cooperation among leaders aware of the past — but not trapped by it — is making the difference in a city believed by some to be beyond rescue. They were wrong.

Oh, there's ample evidence that Detroit remains troubled with underachieving public schools and childhood poverty. And there are reasons to dump on Trump in towns like Detroit, Indianapolis and Youngstown, where the president claimed that he alone would stem plant closings, would produce new jobs, would persuade folks in the industrial Midwest to keep their homes and stay put.

"They’re all coming back," Trump told a rally in Ohio's Mahoning Valley two years ago. "They’re all coming back. Don’t move, don’t sell your house. We’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build new ones."

But companies like General Motors Co. and its CEO Mary Barra aren't hewing to the Trump script. Burdened with too much plant capacity, the automaker is moving to close four U.S. plants, including Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio and Warren Transmission in southeast Michigan, site of two events Tuesday to "highlight Trump’s broken promises on the economy," the Democratic National Committee says.

Politically predictable, that, but not exactly accurate. Trump doesn't make decisions for GM; its executives and directors do. They understand as much, though accumulating evidence suggests the president chooses not to — that and the fact that it's not smart politics to give your adversaries a rhetorical club they can wield against you.

Reality is more complex, and it's not all negative. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is expanding its Jefferson North Assembly Plant on the city's east side and building a second Jeep plant nearby to meet rising demand for the midsize Grand Cherokee SUV. Ford Motor Co. is planning to make the iconic Michigan Central Depot the cornerstone of its Auto 2.0 efforts of mobility, autonomy and electrification in Corktown.

Suppliers are poised to set up shop in Detroit to serve the growing FCA business. And they're copying the Italian-American automaker's pledge to give Detroiters first cracks at the jobs — all without the intervention of Team Trump or the Democratic horde running to replace him.

A new report by the Economic Innovation Group finds that "manufacturing growth accelerated at the national level and in every region over the first two years of the Trump administration. The annualized rate of jobs growth rose to 1.9% at the national level as the sector added 465,200 jobs between December 2016 and December 2018.

"That represents the largest volume of new manufacturing jobs created over a two-year period since before the recovery," the report continued, calling the manufacturing rebound real. "Growth has continued through 2019, and by May there were 12.8 million employees in manufacturing in the United States, the most since December 2008."

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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.