Biden, Duggan in White House meeting talk need for vaccine supply, state and local aid

Washington — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday among a bipartisan group of governors and mayors discussing the urgency of adopting Biden's economic stimulus plan, which could provide over $10 billion in state and local aid for Michigan if approved. 

Duggan said he used the opportunity to press for a larger weekly allocation of the COVID-19 vaccines for the city. Afterward, he used the national platform of the White House briefing room to tout how Detroit led the way on virus testing during the pandemic and the city's low infection rate compared with the state and surrounding suburbs for the last six months.

"We did not in Detroit curl up. We fought back," Duggan told reporters. "Detroiters did what we were supposed to do."

He said Biden's $1.9 trillion recovery plan would help residents struggling with 20% unemployment or facing eviction and aid for businesses so the city doesn't see the boarded up commercial districts of seven or eight years ago. 

"The problem is going to get worse in the summer. We have a national problem that needs national response and the most interesting thing was, if I thought it was unique," Duggan said, "every governor every mayor is talking about exactly the same situation.

"It took us seven years to get from 20% unemployment to 7%. Now, we're back at 20," Duggan said. "Are we going to get our folks back to work in a matter of months or is it going to take years?" 

His meeting with Biden lasted over an hour. In the Oval Office, Biden told the group of state and local leaders that the most important part of his plan is the need to give states enough vaccine capacity to combat COVID-19. 

"Equally consequential is the need to help the states economically in terms of everything from unemployment to being able to make sure they can get kids back in school, and what role the federal government should play in getting that done," Biden said at the start of the meeting.  

"These folks are all on the front lines. They've been dealing with this crisis from day one," Biden said of the state and local leaders in the room. "It's not making a political statement here but it's taken a while to adjust, and they've been left on their own in many cases."

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of mayors and governors to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Washington. From left, Biden, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Biden noted that some governors and mayors have found, like he did, that what they thought was available in terms of vaccine supply wasn't there. He thanked the leaders for their work in responding to the crisis. 

“I think the federal government has a major role to play here, but these are the folks that are on the ground dealing with it every single, solitary day, and they see the failings and they see the successes when they occur," Biden said. 

"What I really want to know about is what should that recovery plan, should we have more or less of anything in it, what do they think they need most?”

The governors and mayors sat spread out on couches and chairs across from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office. Other mayors in attendance included Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Francis Suarez of Miami and Jeff Williams of Arlington, Texas, according to the White House.

Governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York attended. 

"It was a special experience to sit in the Oval Office with four Republican governors and mayors for Democratic governors and mayors, talking and sometimes debating with the president and the vice president — everybody just focused on how to solve the problem," Duggan told reporters after the meeting.

The mayor in recent days said he's been telling the state and federal governments that Detroit wants to ramp up from 15,000 vaccines per week to 25,000. Duggan said he reiterated that during the discussions with Biden on Friday.

"I raised that with the president today, and I think they are doing everything they possibly can," Duggan said. "I know they shared numbers with us, by April, that will look good. We're certainly hoping before the end of February it picks up."

Biden unveiled his $1.9 trillion COVID recovery plan last month, aiming to boost the pace of vaccinations and stimulus aid to struggling families to stem the economic pain of the pandemic. 

The aid package would devote $20 billion to a national vaccination program that intends to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office and $50 billion for regular testing to help schools reopen. 

If passed and distributed to states based on population, Michigan would receive $604 million and $1.5 billion in funding under each program, respectively. 

Michigan would be allocated more than $10 billion in state and local aid, including nearly $4.4 billion for localities, according to draft House legislation. 

Duggan told White House reporters how Detroit was in a bad place after its bankruptcy and finally was getting more people back to work.

"It was going the right direction. We certainly had a long way to go to make sure it included everybody, and then when COVID hit, we're back up to 20% unemployment," Duggan said. "And the question is, what do we do about it?

"We don't kid ourselves about the atmosphere in Washington. We know it's partisan," Duggan added. "But we're really hoping that for the next couple of months on this national issue that they can set partisanship aside." 

He said he supports the push to institute a federal $15 minimum wage in the package, though he deferred to Biden's judgment on whether that would be included.

States and cities have struggled to mitigate an unexpected drop in revenues since the start of the pandemic as sales and gas taxes, fees and other sources of revenue fell off, blowing holes in state and municipal budgets.

Miami Mayor Suarez, a Republican, noted that cities such as his didn't get much aid as a result of the CARES Act that Congress passed in March because the direct funding was limited to jurisdictions with populations of 500,000 or more

"By the way, almost all cities are under 500,000. I think there's only 30-something cities that got direct payments," said Suarez, who is vice chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 

"Many of them had very, very bad experiences in terms of receiving the full allotment that they should have received based on their population. ... Our residents got a fraction of the help that they needed in terms of the budgetary issues going forward."

Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, told reporters after the meeting that Biden did not waver on his request for $350 billion in aid for state and local governments as part of the stimulus package.

But Hutchinson said he believes the $1.9 trillion price tag for the overall package is too high. "We need to compromise on that."

"I agree with the urgency of it, but the urgency can be accomplished just as quickly with compromise," Hutchinson said. "I think it sets a bad precedent to ram that through on a partisan vote."

Biden said of the governors and mayors "that's a real job" in which they meet with and hear from people directly, as opposed to being in the Washington bubble. Biden contrasted that with his experience for years as a senator commuting from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington on Amtrak.

“I’d get asked questions by the conductors and shoe shine guys and ticket masters, but every single day these folks are home, and every single day they’re meeting with their constituents," Biden said.

"We're down here and Washington ... and it's not the same as being on the ground. So whenever I want to know what's happening," he added, "I'm going to talk to governors and mayors."

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said Thursday that the White House reached out Wednesday to invite Duggan to participate.

"Mayor Duggan has been in near-daily conversations with members of the Biden administration, but as you can imagine, an invitation from the president is a special honor," Roach said.

Duggan developed a relationship with the former vice president during the Obama administration after Duggan was elected in 2013 amid the city's bankruptcy. 

Duggan endorsed Biden in 2019 and campaigned for him last year, playing up Biden's role in the auto bailout as well as on transportation funding, mortgage relief and money to combat blight in the city.

Detroit was out front early in its efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus and was among the first in the nation to obtain rapid testing kits.

Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., left, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan listen as President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of mayors and governors to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, in Washington.

As of Thursday, Detroit had received 54,550 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and had administered 44,943 of them, or about 82%, according to Detroit Health Department data.