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Even with limited powers, Duggan in control

This week the Detroit Journalism Cooperative is looking at how the city is functioning under bankruptcy and the leadership of Mayor Mike Duggan. At the beginning of the year, Mayor Duggan said to watch what happens in six months. We’ll review what has changed, and what hasn’t, throughout the week, including a look at the mayor himself.

In his first major address as Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan did not say in his first six months he’d solve the city’s problems…

“…but six months from now you’re going to be able to judge for yourself whether the leadership of this city has a sound plan and is achieving it.”

Looking back, Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press, wondered if the new mayor had promised too much. “I always thought the six-month window was wildly optimistic, and I think he shouldn’t have said that.” Six months, he said, “is not long enough to do much of anything, particularly in a city where everything is so broken.”

For a guy who was elected mayor of a city that actually is being run by the state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Duggan does give off all the appearances of the guy in charge.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of the Detroit News, said the average Detroit resident has come to see Duggan as the city’s leader.

“He’s been very smart in stepping up and saying, ‘I’m the mayor,’ and trying to give the impression that he’s in charge,” Finley said. “And a lot of people out there think he’s got a whole lot more authority than he does because of the image he projects.”

Duggan is kick-starting a city government that has been stalled in many areas.

“I think if you talk to people who work in City Hall, they’ll say for the first time in memory they have a boss who will say on Tuesday, ‘Hey, I want you to look into this,’ or ‘I want you to do it,' and will come back on Friday and see that you did it or looked into it,” Henderson said. “That just has not been the way City Hall has operated.”

Tightly controlling

Not only is Duggan controlling his staff, but he’s also carefully controlling information and access to the Mayor’s office. He’s been described by a close aide as being “single-minded” in purpose in controlling the message coming out of City Hall.

Finley, of the Detroit News, said he expects more of that sort of thing.

“It’s going to be a hallmark of this administration, too: control. They want to control absolutely everything. I mean, you saw the sort of brooming out of the Detroit Blight Authority and Bill Pulte strictly because the Mayor wants control of all things that are happening in the city.”

Bill Pulte worked with former Mayor Dave Bing to get a lot of demolition done in the Brightmoor neighborhood and around Eastern Market.

“We knocked out 10 blocks of blight in 10 days,” Pulte recalled.

But Pulte’s highly-praised efforts didn’t seem to work with Duggan’s plans.

The mayor said there were too many agencies and groups working on blight and all going in different directions. So Duggan took control. Pulte ended up leaving Detroit.

I had a chance to ask Duggan why Bill Pulte felt he had to move his blight demolition work to Pontiac.

“I mean, he’s free to work wherever he wants. So, we would have liked him to bid on the houses here and demonstrate he could knock them down at half the price. But, at this point, our demo team is moving the fastest the city has ever seen. And if Brooks Patterson needs help in Oakland County, I’m glad he’s got it.”

Henderson at the Free Press said he thinks Duggan wants to control a lot more. There are entities the city used to operate, such as the Public Lighting Department, Cobo Hall, Eastern Market, the People Mover, all now are operated by independent groups – and all better than when the city operated them.

“You know, that’s one of the things that Mayor Duggan says he doesn’t really like about city government is that there are these authorities now that have control over things that he would like to recentralize, I think, under his own control.”

A machine politician

Duggan has also been criticized for cronyism. A lot of the people he put in positions of authority are people he’s worked with in the past. Finley says as far as he’s concerned, this fits a pattern.

“This is very much a machine politician. And you’re going to see as more and more control of the city goes to him, you’re going to see all the elements of a political machine. Whether that turns out to the good of Detroit or the bad of Detroit, that remains to be seen.”

But allegations of being controlling or of cronyism don’t seem to bother a lot of residents. Duggan is basking in a honeymoon period. People are beginning to notice more regular garbage pick-up, more streetlights turning on, more buses on the road, and more blight removal. Although some of those changes are at least in part due to the actions of the emergency manager, Duggan is getting the credit.

“Just in the short amount of time he’s had, he’s done did a lot,” said resident Jamie Warfield. “Can’t put nothing past on Mike Duggan. That’s like the best man ever for a mayor.”

“Everything (is) an improvement,” said Curtis Love. “He’s doing his job, put it that way.”

“Duggan, man!” said Charles Bess. “...He’s a good guy.”

Personal style is another reason Duggan is popular. He often dresses casually. He drives himself around the neighborhoods, stops and talks with residents.

Man of the people

Finley said having a mayor who seems like one of the people is in stark contrast to some past mayors who traveled in high style and with an entourage of bodyguards and staff.

“This ridiculous business of a mayor being trailed around by five, ten security officers in his own city everywhere he goes, that sent a signal that I think separated mayors from their people,” Finley said, adding of Duggan’s approach: “I think it’s a good idea. You don’t need all that.”

But, Finley says Duggan has to work to identify with the people. His candidacy was challenged because he moved to Detroit only recently. And Finley says Duggan is very aware he’s a white mayor in a city that’s 80 percent African American.

“He’s still, you know, in the eyes of the people here a white suburbanite.”

But in the end it will all come down to whether they continue to believe the mayor is bringing the city back. And Henderson said people are not going to be patient forever. It’s going to take more than six months to get all the streetlights turned on, get the buses regularly running on time, get tens of thousands of blighted building torn down.

“I think it’s frustrating, though, for people who live here,” said Henderson, a Detroit resident. “Everybody figures everything is going to get fixed in a short window of time and it’s just not very realistic.”

Duggan said he wants people to judge him and his administration on one thing: whether people stop moving out of Detroit.

“It governs every single decision we make,” the mayor said. “We do not have a future if we don’t start growing.”

Finley says that’s not a bad measure.

“Because if people stop leaving, it suggests they have a higher level of satisfaction with the way the city is operating or a greater faith in its future to solve its problems. Those are good benchmarks. If he can hit them, you know, he’s done enough in his first term.”

But, right now we’re not quite six months in. And we’ll hear from the mayor soon about what he and the Duggan administration have accomplished in that six months. He’ll tell us all exactly what he thinks we need to know.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

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