On November 7th Detroit will hold its first mayoral election since the city emerged from the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy.
It remains a city facing high rates of crime, poverty and unemployment.
Both mayoral candidates, state Senator Coleman Young II and incumbent Mike Duggan, vow to address those problems.
But Duggan says he has made great strides in combatting some long-standing issues, even as Detroit rose from near-insolvency to a city he maintains offers opportunities for everyone.
A Massive Primary Victory
As evidence, Duggan cites the August night of Detroit’s mayoral primary, when the first-term incumbent was negotiating a crowd of well-wishers while absorbing his roughly 40 point victory over his nearest rival in the field of challengers.
“I just sat there watching the numbers come in and we couldn’t believe ‘em,” Duggan says. “The numbers I saw tonight looked like we carried every single precinct. So it looks like it is one Detroit.”
The phrase “one Detroit” carries a particular meaning this election cycle.
It’s a counterpoint to a widespread narrative that the city is becoming two separate Detroit’s, one featuring new investment and more upscale residents, the other encompassing neighborhoods mired in poverty.
“We spent the last four years just getting the street lights on and the busses running and the grass cut. Now we’re gonna build a Detroit where there’s opportunities for everyone.” – Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan
Duggan counters that he’s creating a foundation for reinvigorating neighborhoods as well as the city’s business district.
In the process the Detroit News reports that Duggan has compiled a massive war chest of more than $2 million, compared to about $40,000 raised by Young, including a number of contributions from outside Michigan.
Duggan says his efforts at rebuilding the city have helped lead to endorsements from groups like the Black Slate, a political organization that traditionally backs African American candidates. Finance reports show Duggan’s campaign gave a relatively small amount of funding to the Black Slate since this summer, roughly $28,000. And the PAC received some criticism for supporting Duggan over Young.
Yet Duggan calls the endorsements he’s received a sign that he’s taking the city where it needs to go.
“We spent the last four years just getting the street lights on and the busses running and the grass cut. Now we’re gonna build a Detroit where there’s opportunities for everyone,” Duggan says. “And the partnerships that we’re forming with people like the Black Slate and the like is really coming together well. And I know we can land jobs. Now we just have to get our residents to get the skills to take those jobs and we’ll be going the right direction.”
Forward From Bankruptcy
It’s a path that impresses Detroiter Penny Bailer.
She says she’s worked with Duggan on the Detroit Promise Scholarship initiative, which offers high school graduates from across the city free in-state college tuition.
Bailer says many previous Detroit politicians talked about improving the city.
But she says Duggan is making it happen.
“I call him ‘Get It Done Mike.’ That seems to be his persona. Some people say he’s my way or the highway. And maybe you have to be to do something this monumental. (Detroit is) 139 square miles. It’s gigantic. And the mayor, he has to do everything. You have to do transportation, you have to do police, you have to do fire, you have to do water. You have to do everything that it takes to make people believe that they can make it.”
That includes growing Detroit’s tax base by making it a place where people want to live, in part by tearing down the thousands of blighted, abandoned buildings dotting its landscape.
Detroiter Jackie Hardin says Duggan’s demolition effort is creating opportunities in her neighborhood near Dexter and Grand River.
She says, “Where I live, on that particular street there’s only three occupied homes. Everything else has been torn down. But, of course, by me being (an) equal opportunist I’m trying to buy up the street. Ha! Since they’re tearing down everything I might as well try to be a land-grabber. They don’t make it easy. The Detroit Land Bank wants to sell everything in bundles,” Hardin says.
Contracts and Questions over Demolitions
The Land Bank, along with Detroit’s demolition program, came under fire when federal officials briefly froze funding for it amid questions about the skyrocketing price of tearing down buildings after Duggan took office.
Critics contend the mayor was directing demolition work to only certain contractors.
Duggan responds that it was hard to find companies ready to quickly demolish the vast number of buildings he sought to take down.
The mayor adds that it’s an issue that never comes up at the house parties and community meetings he says he attends each week.
Duggan says, “Nobody asks me about the Land Bank investigation. They ask me ‘When’s the abandoned house next to my house coming down?’ And I’m really pleased that the Feds just released another $88 million in demolition money. There’s no question that I tried to solve the demolition problem too much, too fast. The Feds said you need to restructure your controls. We did that in the summer of 2016 and now we’re moving full speed ahead.”
A Show of Resurgence
So is Duggan’s reelection campaign, with the mayor popping-up at numerous events highlighting companies bringing new jobs or new development to the city.
Sustained applause greeted Duggan at one such event, the opening of the refurbished Plaza apartment building in Detroit’s Midtown area.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable few hours,” Duggan told the crowd. “I just came from the site of the old Southwestern High School on a plant expansion hiring 200 more people right here in Detroit. And as I’m going from there over here I get a phone call and Moody’s Credit Rating Agency called to say they were giving the city of Detroit a credit rating upgrade based on last year’s financial performance.”
Duggan went further at a groundbreaking for a new park in the Fitzgerald neighborhood near Livernois and McNichols.
“It’s like parlor tricks to me, man. When the spotlight and the camera comes around you see (politicians.) But when the camera gone, it seem like they gone.” – Detroit resident Don Future
He called the development a test case for analyzing if public and private partnerships in an area with a strong university presence, which Duggan says helped revitalize the city’s downtown and Midtown sections, will also work in the city’s neighborhoods.
”Could you take the strategy that was so successful in Midtown of everybody pulling together with a single vision and could we bring back neighborhoods? And this is the kind of neighborhood that we see a lot of in Detroit. 600 families who stayed along with 115 vacant houses and 200 vacant lots. And we’re gonna prove that we can rebuild this in a way that people are going to be very proud they stayed,” Duggan says.
But some Detroiters living outside the downtown core wonder if a vision of revitalized neighborhoods is merely a mirage.
After the park groundbreaking Fitzgerald resident Don Future eyed the departing crowd with suspicion.
He says the neighborhood rebirth Duggan describes has yet to make it here.
“This is still a bunch of burnt-up houses around here now. Bunch of uncut grass,” Future says. “Matter of fact my uncle just got killed right down here on this corner. And I didn’t see the news or anybody around here for that. You can go down there now, the crime tape is still down there.
“You got to eat with the people, you got to sleep with the people, you got to struggle with the people. And until I see a politician doing that it’s like parlor tricks to me, man. When the spotlight and the camera comes around you see ‘em. But when the camera gone, it seem like they gone,” Future says.
Duggan launched his first bid for the mayor’s seat four years ago by saying every Detroit neighborhood has a future.
But he stated then, and maintains now, that not all neighborhoods have the same future.