KEVYN ORR, Detroit emergency manager, speaks out in the wake of controversial comments about Detroit in the Wall Street Journal that has drawn condemnation from many sectors, especially among prominent civic leaders. — Andre Smith photos
When Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr told the Wall Street Journal that Detroit once was “dumb, lazy and rich,” all hell broke loose in Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels, where movements for social change began and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Orr’s interview with one of the world’s most influential publications was greeted with condemnation far and wide, from Detroit civic leaders to personalities in the media, as well as residents and workers.
To render a full unabated atonement and to explain himself, Orr reached out to Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, on his cell, the result of which led to a visit by Orr in what turned out to be a penetrating, thought-provoking interview that made his positions clear with the emergency manager noting that, “I am my father’s son” as he sought to explain in detail about the remarks that in the eyes of his critics could define his tenure in Detroit. Excerpts.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: Why all of a sudden the epiphany of apology?
KEVYN ORR: Well, I talked to a lot of people. I took time in doing my due diligence in figuring out with friends and some of the city’s fathers and mothers, a group of ministers — my elders if you will — and they made it clear that my words were hurtful in a way that they were not intended to be or that I had realized would be. And that an apology was appropriate if for no other reason than to atone and help the healing process, but also to let people know who I really am. That’s not how I was raised. That’s not how I’ve conducted myself in my profession. I think at this point people have done a fairly broad research into my background and my professional demeanor in other contexts and I’ve never been that way. So even in my (Channel 7 remarks) there were some folks who felt that I might have been less than sincere, and so I want to be clear about it. I apologize because my words were hurtful and in this process I never want to be hurtful or distract from the work we have to do.
MC: Since your coming to Detroit you’ve been described as many things. Who is Kevyn Orr?
KO: Up until this point I was a private citizen, corporate attorney, pretty straightforward guy. I don’t think people realize or understood that I always tried to deal with inclusion and outreach. I was chair of racism in the profession for the Day County Bar Association. I’ve been on the minority bar committee for the American Bar Association. I was diversity partner when I was in private practice for the first time. I was a Collateral Duty EEO Consular in the federal government. And I don’t think many people realize that throughout my career and history I’ve always been one who tried to be sensitive to inclusion. Frankly, when I first heard people interpreting my words in that way it came as a surprise to me because I’ve never been that person and never will be.
MC: You said you were surprised your remarks were taken as an insult. Why?
KO: Well, because I wasn’t meaning it in the way to refer to anyone….my comment was made (pertaining to) back when the city was in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. I was having a conversation about the city in the steamship era when people went abroad and bought things, nobody was thinking about the city. That was a metaphor I’ve used many times before that has no derogatory connotation. But talking to people it occurred to me why people would perhaps see it that way, in a way I’ve never meant it or never understood it to be.
MC: When you look back now, how would you describe the Wall Street Journal interview?
KO: The Journal interview was casual. One of the people I talked to said to me, ‘Kevin, when you are in the private sector you can be glib and use metaphors and idioms whether in court or elsewhere. But now on this job, you have to own it, now you have the cloak of a public person.’ I’d like to think that I’m not a politician but the job gives you a profile and perspective, and you’ve got to embrace that and wear it. Your words may have a different connation and meaning. I thought about that and was very thankful for the way they explained that to me. Now I understand it better. This is a different arena and I will be more (careful) in that position.
MC: What has changed for you since you became EM both professionally, personally and now the Journal interview that led to much civic outrage?
KO: Putting this (Journal interview) aside, I think there’s been a lot of growth. I think the learning curve was very steep. I have a certain level of comfort now with the ability to get things done. I worked very hard in the past five months to develop a relationship and some level of trust that I’m acting in goodwill. I did that with the mayor, with the council, I tried to do it with our stakeholders on the creditors’ side and on the labor side. And I’ll continue to do it. I came in saying I offer a sincere olive branch and people didn’t believe me. I then said 30 days later that we are going to produce the real numbers, I did. I did say we are going to try to negotiate in good faith and even some reporters and editors said why are you taking so long? I said I want to move in a very deliberative and sincere fashion.
MC: You mentioned in the Wall Street Journal being a benevolent dictator. Some say it’s very arrogant of you.
KO: I’ve heard arrogant, I’ve heard pompous. And I’m neither one of those things. I’ve never been those things. In fact, many of the friends that reached out to me said for whatever reason “you’ve been characterized in a way that’s not you.” Some of my groomsmen called me. When I was saying that it was tongue-in -cheek. And they (Journal) had asked me about somebody saying that I’m a dictator. I said I’m not a dictator.
In fact, I believe the statement I made was that I’m very uncomfortable with that characterization. Because ideologically, politically and philosophically, I’ve never wanted to have that. So someone who takes that out of context and thinks that “he’s going around saying that’s who he is” is not even close to being true. When I came in people were concerned about what my room service tab was. I don’t think most people realize I paid that out of my pocket. I keep getting FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. I haven’t billed the city a dime. I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars of my own money to try to come in and help us get through this. So for someone in that context to think that I’m pompous and arrogant I don’t think is an accurate reflection.
MC: What’s been the reaction in the official corridors of power about your comments in the Wall Street Journal?
KO: I did consult with some of the council people. They told me “you need to apologize.” I consulted with the mayor who likewise said that. People don’t realize but I actually do seek their counsel because I don’t want people thinking I’m arrogant. That’s one of the reasons I restored the delegated authority to the mayor and council, and I also restored the compensation because they have a role. I don’t want to be pompous and arrogant and think I know everything coming into the city. So judge me by my acts and deeds, not just by my words, which is actually contrary to that sentiment. So their (mayor and city council) view was “you need to do it.” I’ve since been told by many “thank you, you did it the right way. We continue to support you.” It’s been very rewarding in a sense.
MC: But some people have said your comments gave more missiles to the opposition against an emergency manager. Reaction?
KO: It wasn’t even close. There was no strategy or grand plan to be perfectly honest with you. It was just an offhand comment, a metaphor used before. Hopefully in trying to be sincere about what I’m saying we’ll go back to moving forward because one of my big concerns is this type of issue, which I view to be non-substantive although I believe the hurt was sincere, but it shouldn’t detract from the substance of the work we have to do.
MC: The other issue that came up in regards to your Wall Street Journal interview is how Detroit is defined in the glare of the national and international media more often negatively. And some saw your interview as feeding into that.
KO: Well, I think that was part of the discussion I’ve had with some people about “you have to wear this persona now, good, bad, right or wrong. You are a representative of the city and that this is an international story.” And for a lack of a better word, I have to make sure that I have that in the back of my mind when talking publicly. And maybe have my guard up a little bit more when in those environments. I think that’s been a learning experience.
MC: Do you find yourself walking a tightrope, caught between the demands of political expediency and your role as emergency manager?
KO: No, not at all. I’m going to continue doing my job to the best of my ability in the way that I think is appropriate for me to do it. I do want to be sincere in my apology for what I’ve said. But that’s not going to detract or impact me from doing my job. I said at the June 10 meeting I’ve never held off representation, I’ve never been detracted from getting at the work at hand. I’ve done some pretty tough things and it’s not the first time I’ve been insulted or names have been called. But I don’t expect anybody who’s called me everything but a child of God to offer me an apology. So I’m going to do my job.
MC: Were you concerned that your tenure in Detroit could be defined by those comments?
KO: Not at all because I think that if we do this well, and I keep telling people in the Chrysler, GM bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009, the general consensus was no one would ever buy another car from an auto company that went bankrupt. And they would be obsolete. If anything, they are widely successful. My view is that this is an opportunity for us to show the best of the American experience, the best of Detroit’s experience. Our motto is “We wish for better things. It shall rise from the ashes.” This is an opportunity for us to live up to our own motto. And when we do that, the rest of the narrative of who we are can turn into not only are we a resilient people, but we took on a very difficult assignment, we succeeded at it and we rose from the ashes. And I think if we do this, and I’m confident that we will, that will be the narrative for the city.
MC: Let’s swing the pendulum to the eligibility question on bankruptcy, because of the hearing coming up and since labor and others are saying there wasn’t a time bomb to trigger bankruptcy. Your response?
KO: Everybody has a right to pursue their belief. We feel strongly that we meet the eligibility requirements and most reports I’ve heard of (regarding) the factors we’ve taken into account, no one is questioning the city’s insolvency. I’ve seen that some of our counterparts are questioning good faith efforts but I view those as being very clear. We said we were going to work hard, (and) substantive settlements are still being negotiated. Going forward, I don’t have concerns about that (the eligibility question).
MC: When you look at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) difficult dance to protect itself from the bankruptcy nightmare, now the Journal flap, your critics are saying “we’ve told you so.”
KO: People have to stop looking for some sort of a grand conspiracy or plan. There really is none. You may recall that there were earlier reports that Christie’s has been hired by the city, coming to the DIA. What happened was we had considered that earlier on and I told our team to stand down on the DIA. We had work to do. For the first 30 days we wanted to get the city used to me and me get used to the city and sincerely develop a working relationship with the mayor and the city council. We had to get through the reporting period, produce the all hands creditor meetings report which was a lot of work. But we said we are going to be transparent, it’s out there in the open and we had to go through a negotiations period. And I don’t want the DIA issue to become a distraction from the important work we have to do. We got through the bankruptcy filing. And in every bankruptcy one of the things the debtor has to do is to account for all assets and liabilities because that’s your obligation as a debtor.
Now, I can’t not account for the DIA because we mentioned it in the June 14 report. Whether it’s DIA, Belle Isle, parking, city owned land, all these buckets of assets of the city I have an obligation as the representative to account for in some fashion. And then I’m told it’s going to take 90-120 days for Christie’s to do their assessment. So we had to get started or risk running up against our deadlines.
MC: Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said he was moving to protect his county tax dollars in the DIA. Is that appropriate?
KO: I really haven’t handicapped what our neighbors are doing as far as it affects the process. I’m going to keep blinders on and do my job and whatever people feel they need to do in terms of their perspective they’ll do. So I haven’t dialed that in any fashion about what I need to do. I have to do the assessment and as Christie’s is doing the analysis there are 66,000 pieces of art. I have to do that analysis, irrespective of what’s going on.
MC: The DIA has become a poster child in this bankruptcy equation in terms of what could go and what could stay. What are the best and the worst scenarios?
KO:I don’t think it’s appropriate at this point for me to try to tell you that. I’m not predisposed in any way with regard to the DIA. I said that at the beginning everything is on the table. And there is a reason for that. I have an obligation in bankruptcy to act in good faith.
MC: Some of our retirees, are being represented by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is the governor’s official lawyer. Thoughts?
KO: Well, the Attorney General has spoken as far his understanding of what his roles are and the position that he’s taken. I would point out that with regard to retirees our team recognized that they needed representation. From day one we asked the judge to appoint a retiree committee – that’s actually done by the U.S. Trustees Office. They are in the process of doing that. So retirees will have representation through a committee in the bankruptcy court.
MC: Some labor groups like AFSCME insist “good faith” negotiations are just semantics. This will come up in the eligibility hearing. Correct?
KO: Sure. I’m not surprised that people on the labor side of this equation take a position that we haven’t engaged in good faith. So it’s a good thing we have a judge who is going to make that decision.
MC: Gerald Rosen, the chief judge of the federal court, was appointed mediator of the bankruptcy process. How does this play out as opposed to a private mediator?
KO: It’s good in my perception and I think Judge Steven Rhodes was very thoughtful. He came up with the concept of the mediator. I think it’s good because often times in these situations parties talk past each other and we keep saying the same things.
MC: Do you sleep well at night?
KO: Oh sure. Yeah. I’m a corporate attorney. There’s rarely been a time in my career that I haven’t been called something. That comes with the territory. Certainly with the emergency manager when I first got here I was called all sorts of names. There’s going to be some of that from time to time. I understand that. But I am resolute and focused on doing my job. I will continue so I can progress.
MC: As an African American lawyer to an African American city, what difference does your apology make?
KO: I don’t think it makes any difference in terms of the apology. I want people to understand that I’ve always worked hard in terms of outreach and diversity. I want them to say I’m well aware of my obligation and have been committed for a long time giving back. I want them to also know to a large degree I’m them. I am my father’s son.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.bankolethompson.com.