Mike Duggan: I Can Save Detroit

The new mayor praises his city's entrepreneurial spirit. Is his optimism useful, delusional, or both?
Reuters

Mike Duggan knows what he's gotten himself into. A successful former hospital executive and county prosecutor, Duggan was sworn in last month as the 75th mayor of Detroit. He takes over a city that has lost half its population since 1950 and now faces systemic challenges of crime, corruption, and blight—not to mention more than $18 billion in long-term liabilities as part of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Nothing came easy for Duggan in his quest to become Detroit's first white mayor in some 40 years. After being disqualified from the mayoral ballot in 2012 for failing to meet residency requirements, Duggan mounted a historic write-in campaign that claimed one of the top two spots in the Democratic primary. Later, he won the general-election runoff. Duggan spoke recently with National Journal at his downtown office about Detroit's entrepreneurial spirit, its ability to mount an economic comeback, and his plan to restore confidence in city government. Edited excerpts follow.

When people talk about transforming Detroit's economy, it's tough to even know where that conversation begins. What are the fundamentals that need to be in place for this city to start rebuilding its economy?

I start at the same place I started at the Detroit Medical Center 10 years ago. We came into a hospital system when people said a hospital couldn't make it in Detroit. We started with 11,000 employees and when I left we had 14,000 employees. We did a good job of delivering service. And my job, at this point, is to provide basic city services: Make sure the police show up, the ambulances show up, the buses run on time, the streets are plowed, the garbage is picked up. Really we just need to provide those basic services. I learned in the hospital business that if you do the basics very well the results will take care of themselves.

What other lessons from the private sector do you bring to the mayor's office?

I think everything's the same. Management is management. So you get the right people into the right jobs, and you get them to deliver the services they're supposed to deliver. The economy of Detroit has been growing even in an era where city government was either corrupt or ineffective. That investment was coming here before, when people didn't have any confidence in city government. Now I'm going to prove that the city is governable, that it's manageable, and that should make people even more encouraged.

You asked Detroiters, after taking office, to give you six months to address these issues before they decide to give up on the city and move elsewhere. Is that a realistic timetable?

Well, we're gonna see. But I don't say things without thinking about them. A big part of our problem has been a feeling of hopelessness: that the garbage sits there for days; that [snow] plows may not come; that the street lights don't work; that nobody ever deals with the abandoned houses. There's almost a sense that we've given up hope. So what I think I can do in six months is prove the city can be run competently, and there's good reason to believe that your quality of life is going to get better, and your property values are going to go up, and you ought to stick with us for the ride.

As you begin that six-month stretch, what is your top priority?

Just establish confidence in people. They're not the least bit interested in what I have to say. They really are interested in seeing something different. And I think you're going to see us do some things. I think you're going to see the bus service visibly better; I think you're going to see a first-class plan to fix the streetlights; I think you're going to see an aggressive plan to deal with the abandoned buildings—not just knock 'em down, but save the ones that can be saved. I think you're going to see us do things to reduce assessments, to reduce property taxes of our homeowners. I think you're going to see a number of concrete steps.

Are there specific incidents or anecdotes you can recall that have been encouraging to you that show how Detroit is coming back?

You can feel it in downtown and midtown. Certainly people in the neighborhoods are not feeling it yet, so we've got a lot of work to do there. But you know, I ran into a fellow who's a waiter at an east-side restaurant earlier this week. And he told me he just moved from Brooklyn and that he and his girlfriend are opening an organic market in an area on the east side of Detroit where you wouldn't expect that to happen. And he said, "I never would have had the opportunity in New York or Chicago to do this, but we can come here and do it." And so there is a feeling, I think, in lots of parts of the country, that you can get in here far more cheaply and have a much bigger impact in a shorter period of time if you're in Detroit. And that kind of rebel spirit that is present in so many entrepreneurs is finding fertile ground here.

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Tim Alberta is editor of Hotline Last Call!, the afternoon newsletter of National Journal Hotline.

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