Now Orr has rocketed to national prominence for his lead role in trying to free Detroit from at least $18 billion in debt. He is also charged with restoring basic services that have eroded to dangerous levels during the Motor City’s six-decade descent from industrial capital to urban basket case.
His decision last week to file the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history has triggered anger among the city’s creditors as well as its 9,700 employees and 20,000 retirees, who stand to lose money and benefits. It also sent ripples of concern through financial markets worried that other distressed cities and towns could follow Detroit’s lead.
Orr said bankruptcy offers the best hope for the kind of renewal he envisioned for Detroit in March when he left his cushy job as an on-the-rise partner at Jones Day, a global law firm, to serve an 18-month term as the $275,000-a-year emergency manager for Detroit.
“Frankly, initially I did not want the job,” Orr said. “But my managing partner, my friends and my wife convinced me that at various times in your life there are calls to action and you have to answer that call. What was really going through my mind was that this is a storied city in America that is deserving of a fresh start.”
As important, Orr felt that he was one of just a few people with the right skills and the right biography for the job. “I am a restructuring professional,” he said in an interview. “I happen to be an African American restructuring professional, for a city that is 83 percent African American. And I’m just one of a handful in that cohort who has done these kinds of high-profile representations.”
Orr, 54, felt connected to the region — he attended both undergraduate and law school at the University of Michigan, which is about 45 minutes from Detroit. And as the son of Ft. Lauderdale-area educators who were active in that area’s civil right struggles in the 1960s, he felt a duty to serve its people.
“The real issue is, how do we get the city to the point where residents can expect the police to respond in shorter than 50 minutes?” Orr said. “How do we get the city to the point where the mortality rate for cardiac arrest isn’t 100 percent in the first 45 minutes?”
The job gave Orr extraordinary power to run Detroit. He can tear up contracts, hire and fire workers and liquidate city assets. It also put Orr in the crosshairs of some of Detroit’s civil rights and political leaders, who saw the state-mandated emergency manager role as an undemocratic, and maybe unconstitutional, taking of power. For them, it was the latest incarnation of the long-standing racial polarization separating mostly black Detroit from the rest of Michigan.