Bankole: Detroit needs a champion for economic inclusion

Bankole Thompson

As F. Thomas Lewand, the powerful confidant to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, prepares to leave the administration by year’s end, the mayor should clean the slate by bringing in a replacement who has fewer political contacts and more business acumen.

In announcing his departure recently, Lewand has been praised by the administration for a number of initiatives including the Fiat Chrysler Assembly Plant, Ford Motor Co.’s Corktown campus and other projects.

Tom Lewand

Still, the recovery of Detroit remains disturbingly uneven and has left many Detroiters behind. That’s why the next group executive for jobs and economic growth needs to be someone who has the economic expertise and business credentials necessary to ensure that the recovery is markedly and evidently inclusive. 

Detroit leads the nation among major cities on poverty according to the Census. Lewand's replacement should be public advocate for economic parity and against poverty. 

It is not enough to recruit a real estate wizard capable of getting the city the best deals on the market. It is not about getting someone who can negotiate deals to build skyscrapers on squalor and desolation. 

Given how dire the economic circumstances are in the city and the challenges facing underserved communities, Duggan needs to hire someone who has a demonstrated commitment in advancing economic inclusion to ensure growth throughout the city. 

Lewand has been the economic czar to the mayor for a long time and the sphere of his influence was felt all across the administration, especially at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. The DEGC is the city’s main economic development arm, which is responsible for real estate investment as well as other forms of economic engagement.

His name repeatedly came up when I was writing about the departure of then DEGC president and CEO Rodrick Miller, who spoke out about the need for inclusion in the city’s revitalization. Those familiar with the power struggle between DEGC and the mayor’s office at the time informed me there were irreconcilable differences between Lewand and Miller over the direction of DEGC.

As expected, Miller didn’t survive the politics from inside the mayor’s office, where various power centers clash for Duggan’s attention. And, due to their history, Lewand had wide latitude to meet Duggan's approval. He reportedly served as Duggan’s personal lawyer, worked with Duggan when he ran the Detroit Medical Center, and worked with him for the late Wayne County Executive Edward McNamara.

More importantly, the two have been significant players in Detroit liberal politics for years. Lewand once chaired the Michigan Democratic Party, while Duggan remained an indomitable player in the party as the top lieutenant to McNamara.

Mayor Mike Duggan speaks to Detroit residents about job opportunities with Fiat Chrysler during a readiness event in Detroit on Tuesday.

I was principally opposed to some of Duggan’s cabinet picks when he was first elected mayor, because he assigned some significant roles to some known politicos with very interesting backgrounds instead of fresh faces with new ideas. But that’s vintage Duggan. A political chess player, he leverages political connections rather than seeking the expertise required for certain positions.

Corktown, Midtown and downtown Detroit are not the only places that need more than $100 million investments. Detroit has many neighborhoods that could be positively transformed overnight with an investment of $100 million or more. 

Instead, what we’ve seen is generous $5 million contributions from some concerned corporate stakeholders for certain neighborhoods. That pales in comparison to what Corktown, Midtown and downtown receive for development on a monthly basis.

Such glaring contradiction to the recovery is a major issue. It should be combated by the next group executive for jobs and economic growth for Detroit everyday — not just when a national report indicts the city for worsening conditions on the socioeconomic index.

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at 11 a.m. weekdays on Superstation 910AM.