He's Running: Mayoral Candidate Mike Duggan Makes It Official

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In his memoir “Made In Detroit,” Paul Clemens suggested the “Michigan left turn” as an apt metaphor for the often-absurd way things operate in Detroit. Around here, to go left, one must first turn right.

Detroit’s fundamental counter-intuitiveness was on display Tuesday night as Mike Duggan—the Irish-Catholic son of a Republican federal judge, a former Detroit Medical Center CEO, and a long-time Livonia resident—announced he’s running for mayor of Detroit with New Blank Panther leader Malik Shabazz standing directly behind him, raising black power salutes like he was Tommie Smith in Mexico City.

Even stranger is Duggan, a self-described “turnaround guy” and a member of the state-created Education Achievement Authority, offering himself up as Detroit’s great…umm…hope (let’s just go with “great hope”) to fight off state control of city finances and services.

“I would ask the governor to tell us what data shows an emergency manager can turn this city around,” Duggan told the packed crowd at the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. The audience, unusually diverse for a Detroit political rally, responded with a standing ovation.

Duggan told his supporters that emergency managers haven’t fixed other cash-strapped Michigan cities like Benton Harbor and Ecorse.

“We’re three and four years later. Benton Harbor and Ecorse have fewer than 10,000 people,” Duggan said. “Detroit has 700,000 people. The governor is saying 'I can put in an emergency manager in the city of Detroit, with 700,000 people, and we can resolve this in just a few months.' If you can’t get Ecorse and Benton Harbor solved in three or four years, how can you solve [a city with] 700,000 people?”

Governor Rick Snyder has already indicated he intends to appoint an EM in the next couple weeks, but if elected, Duggan says he would lobby to remove any emergency manager.

“If he does appoint an emergency manager, we’re going to have to work twice as hard,” Duggan said. “We’re going to have to work from today to January 1, 2014 to convince him to dissolve that emergency manager come the next election.”

As an alternative to state takeover, Duggan isn’t necessarily proposing anything Detroit hasn’t heard before—more efficient collection of outstanding taxes and fines, turning over city-run parks and rec centers to neighborhood groups, etc.

While the administrations Bing, Kilpatrick, and Archer may have bandied about similar ideas, Duggan’s pitch is essentially that he’s a superior administrator and can therefore effectively implement reforms where others have failed.

To make that case, Duggan leans heavily on his tenure as the Detroit Medical Center’s CEO, a job he took on when the hospital system was in dire straits in 2004. In his announcement speech Tuesday, Duggan drew a direct parallel between the DMC’s situation and the city’s current crisis.

At the time, he told the crowd, Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano said the DMC’s only hope was bankruptcy reorganization, while the Detroit News editorialized the state should take over the hospital chain.

“The only thing to do with the DMC was either put into bankruptcy or a state takeover. Does the conversation sound familiar?” Duggan asked supporters.

The difference, of course, is hospitals, unlike city governments, sell a service in a reasonably open market. Under Duggan the DMC was able to expand into lucrative suburban communities, something that surely helped theirs bottom line. It is doubtful Detroit could sell police or bus services in Madison Heights or Commerce Township.

Duggan tells a good tale, and his success at the DMC is an unquestionably strong resume point, but one finds a more complex reality hidden behind the proverbial curtain.

The same dynamic is at play when Duggan talked about Belle Isle. Acknowledging his core supporters are split on the aborted state park plan—Duggan’s against it—he said it’s time the city charged its own entry fee to the island park.

“In 1998 Dennis Archer stepped forward and said ‘let’s start charging a fee on that island, we’re not going to have the money to maintain it,’ but there were people in this city that said ‘I want a free ride’,” Duggan explained.

“If the community had faced reality and agreed to that fee in 1998, that island would look dramatically different,” he continued.

Again, it all sounds great, even Malik Shabazz appeared to be nodding in agreement with this call for an entry fee, but the situation is more complex than presented.

That proposed entry fee was part of a larger $180 million revitalization plan that required $123 million in city-issued bonds to pay for long-term improvements. So, yes, had Detroit implemented Dennis Archer’s plan fifteen years ago Belle Isle would be a much-improved place today.

However, after years of borrowing to mask deficits, Detroit is in no condition to issue bonds for such an upgrade. Even at junk bond rates, it’s questionable if anyone would buy them. So reviving Archer’s plan, a great idea at the time, hardly seems like a practical solution in 2013.

Some of Duggan’s rhetoric, frankly, is the stuff Detroit is accustomed to hearing from the likes of Krystal Crittendon or even Daniel Ferguson. Yet no one views Duggan as Sharon McPhail-like fringe player. In fact, he was joined on stage Tuesday night by a host of prominent leaders including the Rev. Jim Holley, former Detroit Police Chiefs Ike McKinnon and Warren Evans, former state Sen. Buzz Thomas, former state Rep. Alma Stallworth, former state Supreme Court Justice Conrad Mallett, and AFSCME vice-president Mike Harris, among others, offering glowing endorsements.

“I believe Mike Duggan is the best to lead Detroit out of this depression,” said Holley.

The contrast of Mallett, a member of the state’s Financial Review Team, standing on Duggan’s right while Shabazz, who once threatened to burn the city down if said Review Team recommended appointing an EM, stood behind the candidate was as surreal as anything Hunter S. Thompson experienced at the Circus Circus Casino.

It also demonstrates why no one can deny that Duggan is a masterful politician. Few others could bring such disparate parties together. What's more, Duggan's entry in the mayoral race was old news, but he managed to pack a hall on a snowy February night to state the obvious.

As announcement events go, Duggan’s event was presidential-caliber stagecraft. Tuesday's rally was world's apart from Kwame Kilpatrick’s bizarre 2005 re-election announcement that featured an unhinged Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick shouting that her son “didn’t just get up in here by just coming.”

Based on the announcement roll out, Team Duggan looks like a campaign force to be reckoned with. Whether they can, assuming Duggan wins in November, translate those skills into an administration that could show an EM the door, remains an open question.

The only thing we know for sure is Detroit is a weird place where no one seems surprised when a self-proclaimed Black Panther endorses a majority African-American city’s lone white mayoral candidate.

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