Detroit rescued by great leaders who kept showing up

Reflections on Detroit emerging from bankruptcy…

This was a historic deal, the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, and one which ended up being resolved in an astonishingly brief period.

Both the events themselves and the final outcome are so remarkable they invite reflection on how history works.

Broadly speaking, there are two general theories of history.

One, the “great man” theory, holds that great events are largely the product of extraordinary people who, through intelligence, insight, charisma or political skill deployed power with profound historical impact. Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler.

The opposing view might be called the “social context” school of history, which holds that individuals, even though gifted with remarkable talents and skills, are largely the product of society and that multiple underlying forces – famine, demography, technology – have, by far, the greater leverage on events. Reflect on how Japan’s shortage of oil in the late 1930’s powered an imperial expansion across Southeast Asia that eventually led to war with America.

The great man theory was most powerfully set out in the 1840’s by the 19th-century Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle, who felt “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” One of the most powerful critics of this theory was Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century sociologist who argued that attributing the workings of history to individuals was childish, oversimplified and illusory.

Today, it’s clear that both schools of thought deserve respect.

Reflecting on the historic events in Detroit, I am led to propose an alternative, perhaps less cosmic way to understand how events often play out. History is made by the individuals who just show up, day after day after day.

Their continual presence in the rooms where decisions are made is vastly important. When it comes to complex events, it is less often individuals and more often a group of people who are the important ones, people who keep showing up, each holding different positions, but united by a shared sense of a broader responsibility. They need to be wise, thoughtful and collaborative. They need a shared long view of how things ought to turn out. In short, they need to be responsible adults, not self-promoters or egotists.

With that in mind, let’s look at who some of the major participants were in the successful resolution of the Detroit bankruptcy crisis.

First, the governor. Unwilling to join the more noisy elements of his party, Rick Snyder recognized that the future history of Michigan will to a large degree rise or fall with Detroit. It was he who pushed through the current Emergency Manager law last year that provided the legal muscle to take Michigan’s crippled biggest city into and out of bankruptcy. And it was he who persuaded smaller politicians in the legislature to support the “grand bargain” to save Detroit.

Next, that deeply experienced bankruptcy lawyer, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. He proved to be a master of the law, fully aware of the complicated political tensions between his position and Detroit’s elected officials, and remorselessly focused day after day on successfully navigating the process.

Bankruptcy judge Steven W. Rhodes ran a taut courtroom, kept things moving briskly day in and day out, and believed powerfully that what happened in Detroit must never again be allowed to happen. His decision that the plan of adjustment was “fair and reasonable” brought legal closure to the drama.

Every large event needs innovative and persuasive mediators to edge opposing sides to eventual agreement. Federal Judge Gerald Rosen, along with Detroit lawyer Eugene Driker, proved exactly what was needed, day after day, problem after problem. It was their brainwave that developed the “grand bargain,” by which most of Detroit retirees’ pensions were saved, and the Detroit Institute of Arts collections were preserved intact, thanks both to the state and the intervention of the area’s philanthropic community.

Newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a white guy elected (to general astonishment) mayor of a decisively African-American city, proved to be a sensible, realistic and collaborative political leader. He brought a city council previously seen as unruly (at best) to the table. Now he has the biggest and hardest job of all: making things work over the long haul.

What is remarkable about this entire process – and what is entirely missed by the national media still preoccupied with “Detroit urban ruin porn” – is that these six wise men were present in meeting after meeting, day after day, the adults in the room. Any of them could have thrown the whole effort off the tracks. Yet all of them respected their unique and yet collaborative roles in the process.

They were the adults who showed up, day after day. They deserve honor and praise in their time. And the details of their work deserve to be considered when we reflect on how we saw history ultimately unfolding, right here in Michigan.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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John Sullivan
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 10:41am
Well done Phil.
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 11:39am
I love this article. Focusing on the positive and bringing insight and allowing people to see and respect the individuals behind the effort is great! I would have included, Dan Gilbert, bringing his effort and his money to Detroit making the many changes he has to down town, making the city, that was too scary for tourists to come to, now a city where people feel comfortable coming downtown and experiencing all the great things Downtown has to offer, as well as, giving other business owners comfort knowing they can open a business downtown and that it could be a great success. Also, shout out to the families who have continued to support Detroit with their businesses. I am so happy to see the turn around! I don't care about the negative articles. They can take their thoughts elsewhere, in my opinion. If something is going to continue in the right direction, it's going to need and continue to have POSITIVE LIGHT, which means, the media needs to recognize that!
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:46pm
yes and onword , forword and make Detroit a good city to live in and michigan a agood state to visit , concentrad on Tourist business
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 8:57am
It is unclear to many why you and others seem to conflate Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings with some sort of miraculous regeneration of the city. The loose comparisons here to the historical events associated with Churchill, Napoleon (!), etc. make this conflation all the more strange as does the odd sounding off on creating your own theory of history or historicizing. When you credit rich and powerful white men with prestigious jobs actually doing those jobs in hermetically sealed conditions of power you lean close to parody -- one thinks of Chris Rock, for example. This started well, with the suggestion that you might want to acknowledge the many, many who do "show up" day after day in Detroit to keep the city running and then veers off on to the perverse course of corporate style public relations.
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:01am
So after making all the decisions, mistakes, choice, and elections etc. that put them in bankruptcy, there will be no real cuts to the pensions, no loss of any assets, they get to shed how many billion dollars of debt (owed to directly and indirectly to other individual investors) and hundreds of millions of aid dollars from state and federal sources, what was the take away here? This shouldn't be considered a blueprint for all other municipalities? Are they watching? Why change a thing? Time will tell.
Thu, 12/18/2014 - 7:40pm
I agree with your take on why this worked Phil. I hope to see more open and balanced editorials in the future.
Sun, 12/21/2014 - 9:35am
Could not agree more with what you have said here. Now it's up to the people of Detroit to elect honest people to reoresent them, who will cut out all the crooked politics and one-party destructive policies that have caused the decline of Detroit in the first place.
Steve Dobson
Sun, 12/21/2014 - 11:03am
It's remarkable what bright, committed people can accomplish when they put aside their shortsighted personal/partisan agendas and focus on the greater good.
Barbara Cherem
Thu, 01/01/2015 - 9:15pm
Think all of these fellows deserve credit, but I would also have added Mariam Nolan (President of the Community Foundation for Southeastern MI), and perhaps Mr. Walker (Ford Foundation, newly hired head), as representatives of the leadership for the philanthropic foundations. Seems like they were key players in selling the other foundations (~8) to ante-up the level of contributions that they pledged.
William C. Plumpe
Sat, 01/03/2015 - 11:09am
I agree 100%. But what about the "unsung heroes and heroines"---Detroit retirees? Retirees did no wrong and in fact did their job often under difficult conditions. A promise was made and put in the Michigan Constitution. Unfortunately that promise could not be kept. But retirees voted "Yes" to the grand bargain because they wanted to help bring the city back to fiscal health and did not want to make a difficult situation even worse by holding out. Retirees are already sacrificing by paying significant health care cost increases and will face additional pension cuts come March 1st. We did no wrong and will bear much of the burden of the bankruptcy for years to come. Aren't we heroes too? And yes I am a Detroit retiree.
Myrna Henderso
Fri, 01/09/2015 - 6:07am
Well done, Mr Powers. You are one of those good and intelligent men who always show up for the good of Michigan. Thank you.