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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Duggan, the White Guy

August 25, 2017

DETROIT – Ten years ago, nobody would have imagined Detroit’s mostly black voters electing a balding, pudgy white guy from the suburbs as their mayor.

Or that, when that may ran for reelection four years later, he would get 68 percent of the vote in a crowded primary election, beating a man with the most revered name in black city politics – Coleman Young – by well over two to one.

Yet that’s what Mike Duggan did this month. You might think that he’d be coasting now, with the November general election a mere formality. But you would be dead wrong.

“I never feel like I’ve had enough success. I never get up in the morning and say, hey, we’re ahead of schedule,” he said.

But, in a lengthy interview in his office last week, he added, “if I do get reelected, we’ve got a lot of new initiatives we are going to roll out,” he grins, declining to completely tip his hand.

There are few success stories in Michigan politics as fascinating that of Mike Duggan, the 59-year-old son of a federal judge who started out in county politics, did a stint as Wayne County prosecutor, and then, in 2004, took over the debt-ridden and trouble-plagued Detroit Medical Center.

In the five years before Duggan took over the group of city-based hospitals, the DMC lost $430 million. Under his leadership, the hospitals cut costs, drastically improved services, and generated $230 million in profits before 2010.

The hospitals then were sold to Nashville-based Vanguard Health Systems in a $1.5 billion deal that included guarantees that the new owner would make major capital improvements, and not reduce services, including charity care, for at least a decade.

That challenge behind him, Duggan, who had lived in Livonia his entire adult life, bought a house in Detroit in 2012, and indicated openly he was doing so to run for mayor.

This happened as the city was crashing into bankruptcy and emergency management. Many were skeptical that black Detroiters would vote for a white mayor.

But Sheila Cockrel, a longtime member of City Council, told me at the time “they’d vote for a purple cow if they thought they could make the police come when they needed them.”

Detroiters thought that someone was Mike Duggan. When he was kicked off the 2013 primary ballot due to a technicality, an amazing majority of voters wrote his name in, some adding “Duggan the white guy.” He won the general election easily, but technically could have been a figurehead, since the city was still under emergency management. Instead, he worked closely with manager Kevyn Orr until state control ended in December 2014.

Following that, Duggan launched a series of eye-opening initiatives, nearly all of them successful.

Within months, overhead lights were restored to every street in Detroit, something once thought impossible. Demolitions of ruined buildings rapidly increased – till the city got in trouble for not complying with state and federal requirements.

He willingly takes the blame for that. “If I had to do it over, I would have made sure we had a compliance bureau set before we did so many demolitions,” the mayor said, adding “but I tell my staff, I will never fault you if there’s a job to do and you make a mistake going too fast.”

If the mayor has any vulnerability, it is that Detroit’s recovery is not being equally shared by all the neighborhoods, something that has become a major theme for his opponent, 35-year-old State Senator Coleman Young II.

Duggan acknowledges that growth has been uneven, but adds “If anyone has a better plan for the neighborhoods, I want to hear it.” Traditionally, candidates with enormous leads tend to avoid debating their challengers in public.

Not Duggan; he will square off against Young in a televised debate on October 25.

There have been persistent rumors that if elected, Duggan may run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year – something he has always stoutly denied.

“That’s a given. God willing!” he says with a grin when asked if he intends to serve a full four years, indicating that the only way he would leave was feet first.

There are those who think a second Duggan term might be an anticlimax, since his administration has done the large-scale stuff like improving ambulance and police response times.

The mayor himself completely disagrees.

“Actually, if I do get reelected, I think the next four years are going to be a whole lot more fun,” he said.

“You know, the first four years, everything was about managing detail. The city bureaucracy had to relearn accountability. There’s nothing fun about grinding out streetlights and getting the grass cut,” and having to ask about it every day.

Now, the mayor said “we take it for granted that the ambulances are in the road, that the grass is getting cut.

“Now, we are shifting to, “how do we create enough affordable opportunities for housing for everyone coming back to the city? How do we get the opportunities and jobs?

“How do we build opportunity? Now, that would be fun.”

Mayor Duggan might indeed be crazy to trade the city he is building for a crack at an uncertain future in Lansing. But given what he has accomplished, if a Democrat does get elected President in a few years, it’s easy to imagine Mike Duggan as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

If, that is, he had any interest in the job.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

August 24, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Aug 25, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Actually not surprising black voters would go for “the white guy” since so many black political figures have proven devious and iniquitous, with a backhanded salute to their past experiences as relevant though not admirable resentment. Adumbration of more corrupt doom swayed voters to the integrity of past white leaders over the licentious thuggery of Kilpatrick & Co. Leaving Detroit in 1970, those yards devoid of grass for endless city blocks, was as easy as getting on the on-ramp. Anyone who can turn the lights on and send an ambulance on time deserves attention. Of course not all can escape the city so easily and most of those left presumably have no relief plan. Mike Duggan, regardless his pigment, seems like one of those heroic guys.

  • 2 Anagnorisis // Aug 26, 2017 at 11:38 am

    FYI. Tom Watkins’ column was mistakenly preempted for a double insertion of Jack’s – unfortunate since we wanted to read comments of disgraced governor Snyder’s China connection as well as Jack’s erudite epistles.


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