Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has spent so much time with President Obama since taking office that local political columnist Tim Skubick recently quipped he has more face time with the president than the First Lady.
The fate of Detroit, a bankrupt city that has little going for it other than tons of vacant land, strikes at the heart of the broader Obama agenda: creating jobs and reviving the middle class. It’s why Duggan is one of the eight new mayors that Co.Exist has been tracking as part of our ongoing series (see: “The Class of 2014: The New Mayors Who Are Building The Future of America’s Cities”).
Duggan has Obama’s ears, but not his wallet. The federal government has said it won’t “bail out” Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy in July and is for now under formal control of a state emergency manager, but after meeting with Duggan in early February, Obama asked him to submit his detailed proposals on how the federal government can give other kinds of help in reviving the city’s economy. Already, Michigan is asking for 50,000 visas for skilled immigrants who would move to Detroit.
“Detroit has had a narrative of loss for the last 10 years in very deep ways. One of the big things that our new elected leadership is going to have to do is to create a narrative of opportunity, and to help us build a foundation that really builds out on the assets of the city,” says Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation, based in Detroit.
Widely admired for his skill as a manager who efficiently ran a major hospital system, Mayor Mike Duggan–the city’s first white mayor in 40 years–came to office in January. “He’s seen as a person who can really operationalize change,” Allen says. His biggest challenges will be tackling the basic needs of adding more safety and policing, renewing neighborhoods from blight (the city has some 300,000 vacant buildings and lots), and finding economic opportunities that reduce the city’s extreme poverty.
Allen has big hopes for Duggan. “Mayor Duggan is a fighter. And one of the things that I like is that he is not giving up on Detroit. He really does understand the opportunities and possibilities before us.” She says he has good ideas about how to improve city management, such as creating a single city-wide vehicle maintenance department, to put back into service the ambulances, snow plows, and garbage trucks that aren’t doing their jobs for residents. On a bigger scale, she’s impressed with his “leave no neighborhood behind” approach to revitalization–giving residents much-needed hope, as long as they are willing to also put in the work.
For now, while the city’s finances are run by the state, Duggan is more the COO of the city, not the CEO. But later this year, once the initial bankruptcy period is over and the emergency manager departs, things will change. Says Allen: “The mayor will be more important than any other mayor we’ve ever had.”