Update: Kevyn Orr's Office Attempts To Explain The EM's 'Dumb, Lazy' Comment

August 05, 2013, 6:51 AM

UPDATE: Kevyn's Orr's office issued the following statement Monday afternoon:

"Detroiters are and have been some of the hardest working, most resilient people in our state and across this country. Focusing on solutions and not dwelling on blame or the past is what is needed and is going to move us forward, together." 

Monday morning: Bill Nowling, spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, has supplied an extensive explanation for Orr's provocative quote about Detroit's historic complacency to Micheline Maynard, a Michigan-based contributor to Forbes.com.

Orr's comment appeared Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, in an interview with editorial writer Allysia Finley that some critics have assailed as fawning and obsequious.

This is what Orr said:

"Much of Detroit's dysfunction is also due to simple complacency. "For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich," he explains. "Detroit has been the center of more change in the 20th century than I dare say virtually any other city, but that wealth allowed us to have a covenant [that held] if you had an eighth grade education, you'll get 30 years of a good job and a pension and great health care, but you don't have to worry about what's going to come."

"But as it became increasingly clear this promise was unrealistic, "there needed to be some very nimble and agile thinking and leadership that was listened to," he adds. "There was nimble and agile thinking and leadership that was spoken—but nobody listened." 

The Michigan Chronicle reports Monday morning that "a group of retirees will be at the Coleman Young City County Building today at noon to demand an apology and respect."

A news brief by Amber Bogins says "Orr offended and insulted city retirees when he referred to Detroiters in a Wall Street Journal editorial as 'dumb, lazy, happy and rich.' "

This is Nowling's explanation, which Maynard says comes from an email and comments on Twitter:

“I believe Kevyn Orr was speaking about the attitude of the body politic of the city of Detroit, not Detroiters themselves. And, I am pretty sure that history, both recent and ancient, bears out such a comment.

 “For someone who grew up in the segregated south, as Kevyn did, Detroit was held up for generations to African Americans and others looking for a way out of poverty and injustice.  It was a place where even those with the barest minimum educations could come, find a job and earn a middle class living.  It is why my grandparents moved here in the ’40s and they barely had an 8th grade education.

“Again, this is not a new commentary about the plight of the Motor City. Much worse has been said those whose only intention was — and for some, still is — to maintain the status quo that buried this city in $18 billion of debt it can’t afford to pay, choked off city services, and led to an exodus — both white and black — of more than 1 million people since 1950. Against that backdrop, Kevyn’s comments barely moved the sensitivity meter.”

Orr's comments, especially the "dumb, lazy, happy and rich" portion, drew an array of criticism from Detroiters, politicians and other observers, as Deadline Detroit reported Saturday.

In her story on Forbes.com, Maynard writes that Orr's bluntness was unusual in the world of bankruptcy lawyers:

"Such comments aren’t unusual when bankruptcy attorneys are speaking privately. Everyone who is familiar with the bankruptcy world knows that debtors, creditors and unions are often at odds, and at times, there can be anger and disregard.

"But the best bankruptcy attorneys understand a central point: bankruptcy is awful. The top lawyers in the field show a courtesy and politesse about the people with whom they are negotiating. And certainly, about the people whom they represent."

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