DETROIT — This was not what anyone expected from the short, stocky man pacing the stage. The annual spring gathering on northern Michigan’s Mackinac Island is usually a predictable schmoozefest for captains of industry — mostly white men — to bend politicians’ ears about burdensome regulations and for politicians to line up campaign dough.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, tieless in a powder-blue blazer, bounded onto the stage ready to take care of a different kind of business. Much of this crowd had supported him in the 2013 race because he was a successful, no-nonsense businessman, a Democrat they could work with in an increasingly red state that had just swung, decisively for the nation, to Donald Trump.
Duggan, 59, opened his annual lecture with a conventional recitation of accomplishments and data points as he headed this fall toward a reelection bid: streetlights replaced, vacant houses demolished, parks cleaned up, police and ambulance response times reduced.
Then Duggan swerved.
“Who here knows where the term ‘redlining’ comes from?” he asked in his gruff voice. “I’ll show you.”
And with that, Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years gave a tutorial on the decades-long history of racist government housing policies that led to the economic catastrophe he inherited when he arrived at City Hall in 2014.
“You want to say, ‘How did all those homes in Detroit deteriorate over all those years?’ ” Duggan said. “There was a conscious federal policy that discarded what was left behind and subsidized the move to the suburbs. That’s how. This is our history, and it’s something we still have to overcome.”
Duggan wasn’t merely trying to be provocative with the Mackinac crowd. These were the very people whose checkbooks and goodwill he relies upon to help restore a bankrupted, depopulated former cultural and industrial hub.
Instead, his history lesson was the prologue to explaining — and selling — an ambitious urban renewal strategy that he claims “hasn’t been tried before in the country.” He intends, he said, to replace desolation with prosperity while simultaneously not displacing low-income residents who remained even as the rest of their neighborhoods deteriorated.
The Mackinac moment on May 31, months after he announced his reelection bid, was the campaign’s landmark gambit. Video of it is the most prominent link on his campaign website, labeled, simply, “The Speech.” Within weeks he had landed the endorsement from the influential Wayne County Black Democratic Caucus and the Black Slate, a PAC formed in 1973 to propel Coleman Young to power as Detroit’s first African American mayor. That was on top of support from dozens of black clergy, neighborhood block club leaders and even his vanquished 2013 opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.
“I do think he deserves kudos — he tackled the issue of race, which continues to be an absolutely toxic topic in this state,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “It’s always significant when you have a white figure who is willing to be frank about issues of race and poverty, and not let people who live outside the city off the hook while not attacking them. I guarantee if a black mayor had given the exact same speech, it would not have been taken the same way.”
At least one person was distinctly unimpressed: State Sen. Coleman Young II, the 34-year-old son of the late former mayor, who came in second in the Aug. 8 primary and will face Duggan in the nonpartisan general election on Nov. 7. In a city where African Americans make up 82 percent of the population, Duggan nabbed 68 percent of the primary vote to Young’s 27 percent.
Yet Young believes that attacks on Duggan’s stance on racial issues have political potency. Young recently began running his first TV ad of the campaign, employing a blunt tagline: “It’s as simple as black and white.” The ad notes that former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is African American, was imprisoned for crimes related to a bid-rigging scandal and that federal authorities are investigating whether Duggan was involved in bid-rigging on a housing demolition program.
“I’m running for mayor because 48 percent of Detroit’s kids still live in poverty, and even though we’ve got billions of dollars flowing through downtown, it’s a shame before God that our neighborhoods look the way they look,” Young said. “You’ve got a 24 percent unemployment rate in some areas. And we’ve got a mayor who said in 2013 that every neighborhood had a future and he was going to do something for them. And he has not.”
Advances in income and joblessness have been unevenly distributed under Duggan, but the public seems willing to give him more time: A 2015 Detroit Free Press poll found 69 percent of respondents feel optimistic about the city’s direction.
“People say what they say in an election year, but you don’t get those kinds of progress without working it every single day in neighborhoods across the city,” Duggan said in an interview in his office. “We had been losing people and businesses from this city for 60 straight years, and people who stayed know exactly why we’re in the condition we’re in, and people understand what the strategy has been.”
Duggan’s sudden surge in Detroit politics has been a surprise in part because his white family was one of those that fled the city in the early 1960s for the suburbs, moving to Livonia when he was 6. He moved back in 2012, when he began plotting his mayoral run.
His appeal, then and now, is a hale-fellow, Joe Biden-esque ability to come across as a scrappy average guy with a relatable stringy comb-over who is empathetic to the working poor. His 2013 campaign sold the public on what he had done as the chief executive of Detroit Medical Center, which Duggan took over in 2004 and turned profitable after the hospital had lost $462 million in the previous five years.
But his background is steeped in politics and government. His father was an elected county judge later appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, and his mother was the first woman to run, albeit unsuccessfully, for Livonia mayor. At 29, he was appointed deputy county executive in Wayne County, which covers Detroit and several suburbs, when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy; the county would reverse course and spend the 1990s in the black. In 2000, he was elected Wayne County prosecutor, resigning after less than one term to take over Detroit Medical Center.
Under Duggan’s watch, the city settled America’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy by erasing $7 billion in debt, has enjoyed three consecutive years of budget surpluses and has seen billions of dollars in private investment flow in.
“Now, we’re shifting to how do we rebuild the city with real opportunity for everybody, which is a much more interesting challenge,” he said.
The crux of his plan is to require residential developers who accept tax incentives from the federal, state or city governments to offer affordable units for 20 percent of the projects. He is using one widely blighted neighborhood, Fitzgerald, as a prototype in which the city and philanthropic groups will spend as much as $10 million to reimagine it as a walkable area with rehabbed houses and parks.
Duggan hails this approach as “unlike any implemented in America,” citing the resurgences of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington as examples of gentrification that displaced the poor and minorities.
Scholars praise the approach even as they question whether it can work on the massive scale Detroit would need to restore its vast plain of depopulated, partially abandoned neighborhoods.
“I think he’s right when he says the conditions in Detroit are unmatched,” said June Manning Thomas, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan. “The idea of trying to pick a few neighborhoods to support in a holistic fashion, which means all the housing, land and commercial, makes a lot of sense. You can’t address all of the neighborhoods at once.”
In the Fitzgerald area, the optimism is palpable. One resident, Judy Davis, attended community meetings where she and others offered mayoral staffers input into what they wanted in the redevelopment. “We’ve moved from hoping the city will board up empty houses to imagining a whole new community,” she said. “We don’t know if it’ll work, but they’re really trying something.”
Other activists, particularly those living in areas where evidence of improvements are scarce and life remains rough and violent, are less enamored and more impatient. Diane Bukowski, who runs the anti-Duggan site Voice of Detroit, attacked the mayor for focusing on helping Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert buy up historic downtown buildings and ignoring the rest of the city.
“He tries to act like he’s a friend to the people in the community. He’s not. He’s a friend to the people who are foreclosing on the homes,” Bukowski said. “Mayor Duggan is a very efficient co-opter of black leaders, and they’ll tell you the city is better off. The city is by far not better off.”
Detroiters’ continued struggle provides an opening for Young, as does ongoing controversy surrounding Duggan’s handling of the city’s aggressive home demolition program. Federal authorities halted the effort in 2016 on grounds that the contractors were violating environmental restrictions aimed at minimizing the release of airborne asbestos. Duggan took public responsibility but appended his contrition with an insistence that the mistakes were made because he felt so much urgency to clear away blight.
“This man is as corrupt as the day is long,” Young charged. “This is nothing more than a war on the poor and a war on black and brown people, quite frankly.”
Duggan seldom addresses his own race, but he did so in his Mackinac speech: “The African American community voted for me, and I can’t tell you what an enormous responsibility that felt like because people believed that I would deal with this fairly.”