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The MT interview with Fred Durhal Jr.

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

A vestige of old-school Detroit politics, state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. has been a part of the city’s political class for more than 30 years, and an activist for even longer. As a sitting member of the state House Appropriations Committee, Durhal is keenly aware of what it means to bring home the bacon.

Metro Times: Why do you want to be mayor?

Fred Durhal Jr.:I want to be mayor because of the fact that I grew up in the city of Detroit; I’ve spent all of my adult life here as well. I’ve been experienced in the mayor’s office; I was an assistant to Mayor Coleman Young for 12 years.

I know how city government [works] because I used to be a city employee; I’ve been both an appointee and a civil servant in the Department of Health and the Department of Housing, so I have a broad familiarity with city government.

I’ve served on four levels of government: city, county, federal and state. I’m the only candidate in the race who can say that. I’m the only candidate in the race who can say that he’s brought back money to the city of Detroit in his function.

… I think [as far as] the leadership in the city of Detroit, the wheels have come off the car and we need to put them back on. This city should not be in the condition that it is physically; it should not be in the condition that it is financially. And this is why I’m running because I believe I have the tools, I have the integrity and I have the concern to make it a better city.

MT:What skills do you bring to the executive office that would help you execute the job?

Durhal: First of all, experience. I’ve been in the mayor’s office before — I know how it functions and I know when it’s doing well and when it’s not. I’m former deputy director of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission, which helped write not just this present charter, but the one before it. So I’m very familiar with how the charter relates to what the government of the city of Detroit does.

In addition to that, because I’ve been on four levels of government and served in varying positions, I understand the interplay between the city and the state, the city and the county, and the city and the federal government. We need a person in office who can easily traverse those three levels of government.

… As a state representative, I am the only African-American who is on the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives — have been ever since I’ve been elected — and so I am very familiar with budgeting. We approve and put together a $54 billion budget; the city of Detroit’s budget is $3 billion. So I don’t think that’s particularly hard for us to deal with.

What is hard is that a number of systems in the city government have broken down, and that’s why we have partly some of the problems that we do in terms of reporting and getting things done in an efficient, effective way.

MT: Given your experience in the state House — and that your colleagues across the aisle are directing the show — how can your legislative position be leveraged to the benefit of the city of Detroit?

Durhal: I think that’s a great question. I’m one of the few Democratic legislators that have passed bills in the Republican Legislature in the last session; I had four bills that became law.

I’m very well respected on both sides of the aisle, by leadership and by the individual representatives, so I think we need that kind of respect when the city needs some help, or the city needs some guidance, and we need to go and be able to talk to the leaders who can make it happen.

MT: Anyone in the minority who can speak civilly of working under the current legislative leadership must have some people skills.

Durhal: It’s difficult some days. I will really tell you that some days it’s more strained than others simply because of the fact that members of the Tea Party are the very extreme rank of the Republican Party. All of them are not like that. Some are very reasonable — some are moderate — but you’ve got that group that has kind of a stranglehold on the Republicans at this point and they are very difficult to deal with; but I’m able to talk to them and sometimes we can talk sense into them, and sometimes not.

MT: What are some of the weaknesses you would have to overcome in order to be a successful mayor?

Durhal: That’s a great question. I think that obviously, dealing with the emergency financial manager is going to be a difficult thing to do, especially if you come there and you want to articulate the feelings of the people that elected me to office.

I think that we will be able to get along — I’ve met Mr. Orr and dealt with him on several occasions. He seems to be reasonable in conversation, but as we start talking about tearing into a $380 million operational deficit and the $16.9 billion structural deficit, then we may have some sharp differences of opinion in terms of what needs to happen.

As a weakness for me, I would think that my weakness is that sometimes I may bite off a whole lot more than I can do. I’m very aggressive about getting things done and I think sometimes I might do that.

I think the other weakness for anybody coming in for mayor is going to be the lack of money to be able to put a plan into effect because of the problems we have with revenues in the city of Detroit.

MT:Instead of asking why you want to be mayor, we could ask why you want to be Daniel?

Durhal: Yeah, walking in the lion’s den. And that has nothing to do with Kevyn Orr — it could be anyone in his position; I think that it’s a big bite. And that’s why I’m running because I think I’m able to do it; I’ve been there before as an assistant to the mayor, so I understand how it functions.

But yes, the person who takes that office January 1 of is going to have momentous problems sitting right in front of them, and who’s to know what’s going to happen between September and January, which could even affect it more if we go into bankruptcy [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the city’s Chapter 9 filing.].

What happens if other folks are indicted and other kinds of things happening? What happens if the people get so frustrated that we end up in a civil rebellion? I’m serious. I think those things are out there, they could happen, but if you’re going to be mayor, you better come. Put on your Kevlar vest and get ready to take some hits because that’s going to happen … that’s why experience counts, because at least you’re able to see it, realize what it is, try to build a counterstrategy for it, if you can; and for those things that you can’t, just duck like hell and try and poke your head up and see if you’re still alive to try to help out.

MT: Are we in Hanoi or Detroit?

Durhal: Well, depends on where you are in Detroit. I live in the hood, OK, and I’m the state rep for the hood; so when we talk about Dexter, Joy Road and Grand River, you know, those kinds of streets in the core of the city.

I represent one of the poorest sections of town we have; one that has changed because it used to be a real good place for middle class folks. But because of what has happened — the downturn of the national economy, Michigan and its economy, and the Detroit economy as well — things have changed really greatly.

And so I think coming in as mayor, I have to look at the community at large and try to fix up some of the holes, and plug up some of the leaky spots, and come in with some new ideas about doing some things too. I’ve got some of those and I want to employ them.

MT: How do you foresee city government operating with regard to the emergency manager’s office?

Durhal: The office of the mayor is still there; it has not or cannot be abolished. The city charter cannot be abolished by the manager. But I do think there is a problem when you have to make a decision that has to be approved by somebody else. That is where some of the problem can lie.

Sharp differences can develop, but I think that if we go in on day one and we talk to the emergency manager in tones that make some sense, because I deal with Republican and Democrats all the time in the legislature, even when we’re opposed to things, or they’re opposed to things, if we can sit down and talk — I always believe talking things out can make the difference, and I believe in working and working and working at it until we can.

MT:And if not, you have the Kevlar vest.

Durhal: And if not then, yes, then you put on the vest and start ducking and diving. I mean if we’ve gotta fight, we’ll fight. I won’t hesitate to fight, but I believe if you’re going to fight, fight for a reason, fight where you can win. You can’t win every struggle. This city has a huge financial problem. It’s either going to fix it or its going to go belly up and the courts will fix it. And you don’t want the federal courts messing around with the government of the city of Detroit. I think that’s worse than the emergency manager.

My job, in terms of dealing with the emergency manager, would be to figure out how I can help bridge the gap and get us to a point where we can get him out of here after 18 months, although I believe it’ll take longer than eighteen months for him to straighten this mess out.

MT: It certainly took longer than 18 months to get into the mess.

Durhal: Oh heck yeah, you’re talking about a 60-year problem, or more years, going all the way back to Louis Miriani’s term as mayor, so we’re talking about Miriani, you’re talking about Cavanagh, you’re talking about Roman Gribbs, you’re talking about Coleman Young, you’re talking about Dennis Archer, Kwame Kilpatrick and then boom, Dave Bing and Kenny Cockrel. I mean, all of those guys.

But none of them handled this the way it should’ve been handled. Had they done that years ago, we would not be at this point today, but I also want to lay some blame of the governor of this state.

MT: The current governor?

Durhal: The current governor. Because when he came in and did away with statutory revenue sharing and combined all of that money in one pot for governments to kind of mold themselves together to try to take part of some that money — It was a bad strategy, I believe, and still is.

It’s one of the things I believe needs to go, and return these cities back to a point where they can get their tax money, because the statutory revenue sharing was devised as a way to stop each individual city, village and township from being able to create its own sales tax or whatever tax, and that the state would do all the collecting of the taxes and then share it with every municipality, based on a formula that was put together.

And that’s what the sharing part of revenue is. The problem with that is they took $179 million out of the city of Detroit’s revenue sharing package in the middle of the governmental year for the city of Detroit.

And I thought that [move] — more than anything else — led to the city to not being able to meet its obligations; then you trip the wire, which allowed public act 72, public act 4 and now public act 436 to even come about.

MT: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Durhal: Yeah, I think it was the straw and one of things I was concerned about was that Dave Bing’s reaction was horrible. He’s a great basketball player, he’ll go down in the Hall of Fame and all of that and it’s a wonderful thing.

I have nothing [against] Dave Bing; he and I have been friends for more than 30 years. But here’s the point — Dave Bing had a steel company.

Here’s Fred Durhal. Do I think that I can get in there and run the damn steel company? The answer is hell no. OK? That’s my thing, and I’m smart enough to know it’s not my thing, so I’m going to leave that alone.

Just like your job, hell, you are in journalism. I am not a journalist, and I ain’t about to try and do your job, OK?

MT: That has not stopped countless …

Durhal: But that’s their problem. My problem is to know what I’m good at and then get there and do it. And I think that Dave Bing will probably go down in history here in the city of Detroit as one of the worst mayors this city has ever had. And that’s a shame because really some of this stuff happened and he couldn’t stop it, but he didn’t have the tools to even recognize that we were in the danger zone until the tragedy hit us.

MT: So Dave Bing is to the city as Gerald Ford was to the country?

Durhal: Yes. Sharp, yes. The city was so racked by the Kilpatrick scandal that somebody who was just kind and soft-spoken and — he allayed your fears, he made you feel like, “Oh wow, I’ve been a professional, I’ve been successful in basketball, I’ve been successful in ... Dave Bing will put the fire out and make things calm down,” and he did do that, I give him credit for that.

But when it came to running the city and managing it, and administering the departments under his control, he did an awful job at doing that.

Listen, 59 people left his administration over the four-year period that he had. Six police chiefs in five years. So you wonder about public safety — how the hell are you going to have public safety if you can’t even keep a police chief? I just think that there was a mismatch, that’s all.

He was not suited, he did the best he could, and probably will until he leaves in January, but the whole point I think is this — the city needs a strong leader. You may not agree with that leader all the time, but one thing about it, if you’ve got something to put out there, put it out there and then let people kind of flip it over, turn it inside out and see if it’s something they can deal with. And if not, you’ve gotta be smart enough to coalesce with people so that you can get the desired result.

The fights he’s had with city council, some of them are natural. I’ve been asked by other members of the press about the relationship between the mayor’s office and city council. Well I lived that, so I do understand it. All I can tell you that is that the mayor, Coleman Young, taught me a long time ago: Get five of the nine members. OK? And sometimes you have to interchange those members based upon what the issue is, but you get your base five people and those are the people that you stick with.

So actually, you’re really dealing with all nine of them but you deal with them as a unit, and not as individuals. You treat them well as individuals, but when it comes to policy making, if there are differences, then you work those differences out, one on one. Same thing I do up in the state legislature, it’s the same thing I’m going to employ when I’m mayor.

You’ll have very few fights between me and city council because when I develop policy I’m going to have a council member or two there to be right in the middle. It’s hard to fight your shit.

MT: What would your administration’s top three priorities be and how long would the voters need to wait before seeing any results.

Durhal: I put myself on a 100-day plan. The first 100 days are going to be the most important in my administration … in the following way: A) Public safety. We’re going to have a police chief who is going to be able to do the things that need to be done to return calm, peace and quiet to the city of Detroit.

We’re going to have a chief of police who is going to be able — at my direction —implement the program that I want to implement. We’re going to take two-man squad cars off of the streets, and we’re going to split them so you have one-man patrol cars and a thousand of them out in the streets, patrolling all over.

If I do that, it wouldn’t cost a dime, only thing it’s going to cost us are some cars. And since we’ve got our rich folks that are coming to the table, and adding new police cars and fire trucks and all of that, I would go to those people and say, look this is what we need in order to make this happen, can you help me?

You did 100 cars can you do 100 more? Can you imagine what happens with 200 [additional] patrol cars in the streets of the city of Detroit?

MT: This reporter would likely get a traffic ticket.

Durhal: Well you probably would, but let me say this to you: You will also get safety. The neighborhoods will be safe. Downtown can still do the stuff they do downtown, but out there in the neighborhoods, at Telegraph and I-96, you don’t have to worry about being robbed, shot and killed because you’re going to have cops patrolling in all the neighborhoods of the city.

I’m a community man, and if that’s one of my problems, it’s a problem. I came from the community, I’ve been a block club president. I’ve been in organizations all of my life. I’m kind of like Barack Obama in that I’ve been an organizer. I understand what has to go on at Joy Road and Linwood at midnight.

We’ve gotta have police present out there because that’s when people stick you up at the gas station and take your car. That’s when people break into folks’ houses. I’ve had reports of people having their home broken into while they were still in the house.

MT: That’s not only endemic to just the city.

Durhal: It happens in the suburbs as well. The whole issue of crime is tied to unemployment, which is plan number two. I’m going to work like hell to make sure that people get back to work, because getting a job is the best way to fight crime. Because if people’s hands are busy doing their work, they ain’t got time to be criminals.

If we continue to let this go like it’s been going, the job preference, the job of choice is going to be being a drug dealer, and that’s something I think this city doesn’t want, need, or will tolerate.

And the third thing, while I’m talking, is about neighborhood conservation and stability. We’re losing a lot of houses out here, and a lot of those people are not leaving, they’re just [playing] Chinese checkers: Moving around to different places. I want to stop that. I think that we can stop it.

I talked recently with the folks at Quicken Loans, and I have an idea that I think makes a lot of sense. Why don’t we have a mortgage that is built upon your ability to pay? If my son is making $25,000 a year, he can’t afford to pay $500 a month for a place to live. He’ll never make it.

We need to look at the fact that $25,000, this is a percentage of his income and we’re going to set the mortgage this way, but instead of being a 30-year fixed, we’re making a 40-, 45-year fixed [note].

What are we doing with car notes now? We started out in the old days, you had 36 months was the longest time, you had 24 months — and then they raised it to 60 months. And now it’s 72. So people are paying cars on a spread out basis, OK? Which is great for the finance companies, because you’re talking about interest, baby. That’s how they make their money. And I think that would help solidify the neighborhood.

Look, you won’t have foreclosures, because people will be able to afford it based on the income that they have. Dad works and has a fixed income; his income is going to be what it is for now on. So why in the hell do you put him in a situation where he’s got to go out and scuffle to make up the part he can’t afford to pay in the rent? The rent is $700 a month and he’s only getting $300, what do we do?

MT: With all due respect, nobody’s forcing Dad to live in a place that’s $700 a month.

Durhal: Well you’ve got to remember, a lot of these folks were living in these places prior to all these actions taking place. What the banks primarily did was put people out of their own homes because in some cases people had their homes paid for.

MT: Predatory lending, which is what it sounds like you’re speaking to, is separate and aside from people taking on too much mortage.

Durhal: Well if you take predatory lending, and you mix it with economic conditions that are negative, you’ve got a hell of a soup — and that’s where foreclosure comes in.

Most of the foreclosures that have taken place have not been tax foreclosures, they’ve been mortgage foreclosures, and those are the ones that I would key on with people in the industry and say, “Look. Let’s do this, let’s set a base minimum. You’ve got to be able to make this much money and you’ve got to be able to pay this much a month to get X house; four bedroom, three bedroom, whatever it is.”

Because, most of it is not brand-new housing, it’s housing that existed for years and years and years. My aim is to keep a person in the house, I’d rather do that than wait 48 hours and have the damn place stripped down to the bare — where if a person did buy the house, they gotta put $50,000 in the house in order to make it habitable.

MT: So you’re really talking about restructuring current loans versus someone going out and getting a new mortgage.

Durhal: Well I said that to Quicken, and you should’ve seen the reaction. Their eyes all opened up like this [very wide]. They hadn’t thought about doing that, and I think that it makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win for everybody. They win because of the length of the contract and the interest rate; the consumer wins because they’re going to get a product that will allow them to stay, stick and stay, in the neighborhood; and most people in Detroit like where they live.

MT: You spoke to some of the more impoverished neighborhoods of the city, which prompts the next question: Much has been made over the gentrification of Midtown and the urban renewal that has taken place downtown, but to those residents who don’t live in those two bubbles, how can your administration help promote urban renewal?

Durhal: Well I’m glad you asked that. I’m the only candidate in this race who has helped build a community. I was the executive director at the Virginia Park Citizen District Council, in the area where the riots started in 1967.

We completely rebuilt that entire community, and it took 13 years to get it done, but we got it done, and it has a community owned shopping center that used to host the Farmer Jack and the Steakhouse and all of that; and things have changed so the people living there now have changed, but it’s still viable, it’s still working.

We spent $41 million of urban renewal money in order to make that change happen, and I think that was one of the greatest things that happened in this country. It’s only one of two community-owned shopping centers. We went out and sold bonds to our folks and they bought interest into owning the shopping center, so it’s a success.

As I did that, I’d be looking at other parts of the city. Particularly, the Grandmonts and other areas of the city on the east side where there are pockets of abandonment, Brightmoor and Southwest Detroit.

I think that Southwest Detroit used to be self-contained, but it is not that way anymore. You know part of my district takes in Southwest Detroit and down where Marathon in expanding. It looks like hell down there now, but they’re buying up all the property down there so they can facilitate the expansion.

But the point of the matter is that everywhere in this city ought to be a good place to live and that’s what I’m after; I’m after making sure that Woodbridge is okay, making sure that Rosedale Park is okay, Indian Village is okay, East English Village. All of those sections of town have a unique thing about them and I think that, as part of culture, as part of the joy of living in the city of Detroit, you [should] appreciate all the different parts of the city.

And I think that any mayor who’s going to be there and be successful is going to have to incorporate into his plan a way to get into the nexus of these communities and begin to figure out how to make them good.

MT: How would you promote co-operation between the city and your various county executive counterparts?

Durhal: I’m going to do just like the president of the United States does with foreign leaders, stay on the damn telephone with them, meet with them whenever it’s possible, discuss with them what the dos and the don’ts and the ifs and the cans, and try to make something out of it.

MT: There is a plague of abandoned homes in this city that an executive could probably spend his or her entire first four years on just that issue. How does the city deal with that scourge?

Durhal: I think two ways: One, and I’m impressed with the Pulte action that’s going on, I think that’s fantastic what he’s doing by tearing some of these houses down. Obviously as fast as they tear them down we’re encountering new ones and that has to be chilled. But secondly what I want to do is talking to people like Habitat for Humanity and getting Habitat to co-op with city of Detroit and rebuild certain sections of the city.

But if we don’t get people jobs, they’re not going to be able to be property owners and they’re not going to be able to be successful leases and renters.

MT: You have a geographically expansive city where 2 million once lived, now barely 700,000 call it home, and where some residents are the only occupant left on an entire city block. Ideas have been floated to truncate the city’s residential neighborhoods. Is that feasible? Possible?

Durhal: Not for me. Detroit has 139 square miles, I love every one of those square miles — I ain’t giving up no damn territory, no. I don’t know of a city in America that has shrunk itself that way.

Saying that we’re not going to provide services to this section and we’re going to spend all of our resources in this section, I think it’s wrong. I think what we ought to do is to look at what is going wrong in each section, rather than what is going good in the other sections, we need to concentrate on what is going bad.

That’s when the federal government steps in. We have a relationship with HUD; HUD has an office right here in the city of Detroit. There is no reason why we should not be in there with HUD every single day trying to look at these 139 square miles and say, “OK, how do we bring back to the city of Detroit some of the housing?”

Understanding this, houses were built on single lots, you could go on the east side of Detroit and in some west side neighborhoods stick your hand out the bathroom window and touch the other house. We know that’s not practicable and quite frankly the state law says you can’t do that anymore.

What we need to be able to do is to build houses for people who want to stay in the city of Detroit. Listen, if you go to Livonia and buy a house, you’re going to pay way much more than you would ever pay in Detroit.

The reason why is because the land is higher [in value]. In Detroit, you have an opportunity to buy land at a bargain price. People are swallowing it up as fast as they can — in certain neighborhoods.

See I’m a guy who believes in looking at the bad first. If you’ve got a mouth full of teeth you need to key on the cavity, because if you don’t do that, you’re going to end up with more cavities than you’ve got teeth.

And so my position is to do what a dentist does: Go and find the things that are wrong, work on straightening those things out, and sometimes it’s going to take a while; Detroit didn’t get to being Detroit overnight.

Detroitis 300-some-odd-years-old. Listen, it ain’t gonna get done, it may not get done during my administration, but I will tell you this — we will begin it, and I think that we will be fine.

MT: People are moving to Livonia over Detroit not just because the land is more attractive, but they feel safer — the schools are better. Public services are more efficient. So how can you, Mr. Mayor, bring those elements that are attractive to people looking for homes in Livonia back to the city?

Durhal: I think that the way you do that, again, is tackling the problem. The problem is education. The mayor needs to be working with the board of education, whether that is the superintendent, the board itself, or whether it’s an emergency manager — or a combination of those things.

The mayor ought to — and I would not want to be superintendent [because] you gotta run the city you ain’t got time to be running the board of education — but what you do want to have is an opportunity to share city resources, and for them to share what they have with the city so that we can educate these kids.

Because the power in the future is to education of these children, and any mayor, and I don’t care what his position is, has got to deal with that, because we’re losing our kids to charter schools, we’re losing our kids to the state.

We send kids to college, they get a degree, and they’re out of here. We’ve got to give them a reason to stay, and I think that’s part of the mayor’s responsibility. I think in the area of public safety — if folks don’t feel safe they ain’t coming. You wouldn’t be down here right now if you didn’t know that the police are down here all the time and you’ve got cops downtown.

MT: I’m here because this is where my job is.

Durhal: Well I know, but I’m saying to you though, you feel safer venturing out knowing that every few feet or so you’re going to see a cop car. If you’re out in the neighborhood in the boonies, you don’t see the police. In fact, you can drive from the east side to the west side and take a half an hour to do it, and you’ll never see a police car. We’ve done it.

So the whole issue of public safety has to do with your line of sight; you’ve got to see something in order to believe it’s there. Criminals aren’t stupid. If they know a cop car is running through every 20 or 30 minutes, and I don’t know where they’re going to be next, they’re going to be more reluctant to get involved in criminal activity.

MT: Isn’t that the whole concept of substations?

Durhal: Yes. Oh, I’d open them. I don’t have a problem with it. I think it’s great, but we have to end the 12-hour shifts because that has the potential of putting the city in a very dangerous legal position. After the 10th or 11th hour a person is beat down, you know how it is. You come here and if you work 8 hours and then have to work two more to meet your deadline, you’re like “ugh … I don’t care if I spelled this name wrong.”

But the point is this: Safety, education, and neighborhood preservation. Clean the damn city up. The city looks like hell. It ain’t never looked like this, but we’ve got to do some cultural changing too, to stop these young people from stopping at a traffic light, rolling down the windows and throwing out their McDonald’s stuff all over the ground.

I’ve seen them do that, I’ve pulled people over and made them go get the stuff and put it back in their cars. Take your garbage home with you; don’t throw it in the street. We have to pick that up, you’re in my living room. Don’t do that.

That was [New York Mayor] Giuliani’s philosophy. You know what, if the city looks better, the people will be more respectful. Nobody wants to live in a dump. And if you live in a dump you begin to adopt a dump attitude, and you’ll throw stuff anywhere because you’re in a dump. It goes in with the other crap.

The mayor’s responsibility is to be the ambassador of this city, go out there and go fishing and find some jobs and industry and what have you. I’m going to spend a lot of time doing that, and when I’m not doing that I’m going to be meeting with the folks in the board of education and all of that to try and see what we can do together, the city and the board to be able to get kids educated.

I’m going to be meeting with community leaders on a constant basis because I’ve been a community leader, been a block club member. I know what it’s like to call DPW and they don’t respond. And all of those kinds of things are not going to happen while I’m the mayor.