By Jacob Meschke
Who is the real mayor of Detroit?
Politico Magazine raises that question, listing Dan Gilbert -- not Mike Duggan -- as the Detroit mayor and including him among “America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors."
"Gilbert, 55, is not actually the mayor of Detroit, and in most of the city’s sprawling 140-odd square miles, his influence is negligible. But in the city’s now-thriving downtown—Gilbertville, some call it—this billionaire businessman wields the kind of power and boasts a résumé of civic accomplishment that most politicians could only dream of," writes Nancy Kaffer,a political columnist and editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the roundup's contributors.
Does the Quicken Loans founder wield undue influence over city hall? Is he the real mayor? That subject has regularly surfaced at parties, bars and lunches in both the city and suburbs. Kaffer, who's very savvy about local politics, articulates it well in this story:
At a time of dire need for Detroit, what he has done is remarkable. But for some Detroiters, that doesn’t sit well: Because Gilbert isn’t an elected official, he has no public accountability...
Detroit has a real mayor, of course—Mike Duggan, elected in 2013 as the city’s first white executive since 1974—who has partnered with Gilbert on some projects. Duggan is perhaps more attuned to the contours of the city. The mayor—who has demolished thousands of blighted houses, among other initiatives—has ensured that razed land gets community input as it is redeveloped.
Kaffer’s writes about the implications of Gilbert, who is referred to in the article as the "shadow mayor." What does it mean for the city when, for example, Gilbert’s private security force doesn’t have to release the same data as the city’s force?
Neither of the two men appear in the piece. Gilbert “was not available for an interview for this article,” Kaffer notes, and Duggan’s “press secretary did not respond to a request for comment about Gilbert’s work downtown.”
Of the 18 people in the article, including seven “rising stars,” the Detroiter is the only one who's not actually the elected leader.
It’s a fascinating instance of national coverage about Detroit, and shows outsiders some nuances of the city's power structure.
In the end, the coverage may be somewhat flattering to Gilbert, but it's likely the kind of publicity he would prefer to forgo. Too many people complain that he has too much power, and that can't always be good for business, particularly when you're a billionaire seeking public funds to help finance massive developments.
On the other hand, the article is a bit of swipe at Duggan. Some might read into it that Gilbert is the shadow mayor pulling the strings and Duggan is his puppet.
Duggan is no pushover, to be sure. Just ask the folks who have worked for him over the years.
But he also knows how much Gilbert has done to bolster the core of the city.
That's hardly something he can get mad about, even if some people consider Gilbert the mayor.