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This article is part of a weeklong America 360 series on Detroit.
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.
(Laughs.) There's no question — every entrepreneur has a little bit of rebel to start with. But those who are real rebels tend to find their way here. And there are lots of them. So we've got to do a few things. We've got to start to take the rebels who live in our own community and do a much better job of creating entrepreneurial tracks. And also, what Gov. (Rick) Snyder announced in trying to open up this community to immigrants in a more effective way. We want to create an environment where this is where you want to come and start your business.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to reinventing the economy in Detroit?
You know, I don't — no barriers come to mind.
Really? What about the negative perception of public safety in the city?
I can't really comment on that because the emergency manager has not seen fit to put me in charge of public safety. So you're going to have ask him about that.
But soon, as of this fall, your authority will extend to that area. What then?
At that point I will have a very aggressive public-safety plan.
As you noted, some of your official duties have been curtailed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.* What is your relationship like with him?
Do you look forward to gaining more authority over the city?
I always believe that I have the ability to manage things. But the reality is what it is. Kevyn Orr and I have a very professional relationship. We don't have any trouble understanding what we've each agreed to do. I have plenty of things to solve. And in eight more months he will move on, and I expect the transition back to elected leadership of this city to be seamless.
It sounds like your sales pitch, to residents and businesses, is about breaking from the past. It's all about good government — one that's effective and not corrupt. Is that fair?
Yeah, and not just that, but we've got government leaders who behave like adults. And I think that's what you're seeing right now. You've got the leadership of the City Council and the mayor's office who are behaving like adults. You have an emergency manager and a mayor who are behaving like adults. So we've got a lot of disagreements, but you're not seeing us throw tantrums. We're sitting in a room and grinding through them — and that's the way it should be.
You're a white mayor in an 85 percent black city. What is the dynamic there? Do you think that issue is settled now that the campaign is over with?
It was settled before the campaign was over with. It's just that my opponent didn't realize it. The city got past that a long time ago. You go out with me and most of the time I'm the only Caucasian in the room. Nobody cares. What they want to know is: "What's my plan for the abandoned house on their block? What's my plan to get the bus to show up?" They don't care what color I am. What they care about is, "Do I care about the city? And do I have the ability to make it better?" This city overwhelmingly does not care what color you are, or what religion you are, or where you're from. They want to know, what's in your heart? And can you perform?
*Duggan's power as mayor is limited. Detroit is under the supervision of state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who last week in federal court filed a "plan of adjustment" to balance the city's books by slashing city pensions and restructuring creditor agreements. Orr's control over the city's finances and operations has essentially robbed Detroit — famously known as "the Arsenal of Democracy" — of democratic governance. Orr has retained authority over the police department, but in a power-sharing agreement gave Duggan control of most day-to-day operations. Orr has set a September timetable for leaving Detroit after the city exits bankruptcy.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.