Mayor Mike Duggan caught fire in a crowded room on Mackinac Island on Wednesday afternoon. No one attempted to put him out, and for good reason.
Duggan is known to be a good cheerleader and political stage performer when he wants to be, frequently exuding a kind of folksy, everyman blue collar charm designed to disarm opponents and win over crowds. Duggan is a politician, and he does what politicians do quite well.
But his performance on Wednesday afternoon (if ‘performance’ is even the right word) when he delivered the keynote speech to a packed room at the Mackinac Policy Conference was something altogether different. This wasn’t just passion, because Duggan has presented himself as passionate many times before. This was something deeper. This was a Detroiter fighting Detroit-style for his city in front of an audience not necessarily accustomed to such a ferocious pitch. And in the end, Duggan pointed twin barrels at the dysfunctional Michigan House as being a major stumbling block to Detroit’s revitalization, because if they continue to play these lunatic games with the funding of DPS, the future of the entire city could be threatened.
For the first half of Duggan’s presentation, he talked about the good side of things, and the vision he has for the city.
“We’ve got to develop advantages that are uniquely Detroit.”
“We’ve got to attract businesses and jobs at all skill levels.”
‘We’ve got to have housing options for everybody in the city.”
Then Duggan discussed the housing situation, making only a passing reference to his current troubles with the feds who are investigating how his administration has awarded contracts for the much-needed demolition work around the city. The question isn’t whether the demolition was needed, but whether Duggan improperly favored certain companies in awarding those lucrative contracts. Duggan admits there were some “bumps in the road” but that they have learned along the way and that any and all mistakes were only honest mistakes.
Maybe so. Hopefully so. Only time will tell as the investigation continues. Meanwhile, Duggan is focusing on moving forward. For understandable reasons.
“Here’s what we know today; there are 380,000 parcels in the city of Detroit. The Land bank owns nearly 100,000 of them. Almost a third of the city. 70,000 are vacant lots, and 30,000 parcels have a house on them. And so when you think about the 30,000 that we own, 5,000 there’s still somebody in them. 5,000 are vacant but they’re structurally sound. And about 20,000 have to be demolished,” he said.
“If you want to think about the magnitude of us owning 30,000 homes, the entire city of Dearborn is 30,000 homes. So imagine the City of Dearborn being responsible for every home in the city. So that’s what the Land Bank deals with every day.”
But the demolition is making way for the new Detroit Duggan hopes to see through, one that extends far beyond downtown. He pointed to the Dequindre Cut, and other developments both current and planned as evidence that “the neighborhoods are coming back.”
“We want to build a city where every section of the city is open to everybody. That’s what Detroit’s about. …Here’s the commitment the Detroit City Council and I have made; any housing development in Detroit that has any support from the city at all, a minimum of 20 percent is going to have to be affordable, legally set aside for people with lower income. “
But none of what Duggan wants to accomplish can happen in a sustainable way if something isn’t done about the schools, which is why he finally decided he had to jump in the water.
“Every mayor in America who has touched this has been badly hurt politically. But you get to a point where you just can’t turn a blind eye,” he said.
And then he pointed to the $650 million deficit that accrued under the watch of the state, which took over DPS under the premise that DPS could not handle the job and the state could do it better.
“Now look at the numbers,” he said, pointing to a chart demonstrating how the deficit has grown over the past seven years under emergency management. “If any city in Michigan ran up these deficits for seven years what would happen? They’d appoint an emergency manager. But this is the emergency manager’s record!”
Duggan then pointed a flamethrower at those who say the free market approach is the best way to solve the school crisis in Detroit, once again pulling out the facts and figures.
“This isn’t free market. The charter schools, I love the ones that are doing well, but they’re getting $1 billion in public tax dollars. You’re saying give me $1 billion in government money, and then butt out and let the free market do it. What free market?”
“Here’s where we are today; there are forces in the House that are saying to them don’t do it. Give the schools $600 million, send it back to a local board, and be done with it. No local authority at all on openings and closings. That is what they’re trying to pass right now. And they know if they do that, they know that DPS is gonna fail and that $600 million is gonna be blown. They know it. The governor knows it. And they’re trying to pass it anyway.”
Duggan says he supports the Senate legislation which includes a Detroit Education Commission that would essentially be charged with applying a single standard that would apply to all Detroit schools, and would also be charged with monitoring applications for the creation of new charter schools, not just letting them pop up wherever and whenever they want. He also supports the creation of a school district that simply makes sense.
“Can you imagine, in your community, having five superintendents in 5 years? What would you be saying in your school district? Can you imagine your children going to school and sitting in class in winter coats? We are stealing the children’s future. If you can’t read when you’re in 4th grade, your future has been stolen from you. At nine years old.”
“Eighty percent of the schools in the city of Detroit today has opened or closed in the last 7 years. If it was your school district, and 80 percent of your schools opened and closed in the last 7 years, how angry would you be? Should you care any less when it happens in Detroit?”
And that, right there, targeted squarely at an audience that is not from Detroit, is the point exactly. Just imagine if these were your children. If Detroit was your city. Just try and act, for once, like Detroit is a part of Michigan.