Looking for a leader

What issues should be shaping the race for the next mayor of Detroit? What qualities does the next mayor need most? With the primary campaign to succeed Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer gearing up, those were the questions on our minds. So we posed them to a wide cross-section of people — representatives of the business community, grassroots activists, the heads of nonprofit organizations, observers from the media, even other politicians.

What surprised us, given the diversity of this group, was a remarkable consistency of their observations. There were differences, to be sure. But time and again, the same issues kept surfacing: how to revitalize the city’s beleaguered neighborhoods, and how to balance that need against the desire to keep downtown development moving forward; how do you reform a lumbering bureaucracy; how do you provide a higher level of city services given the constraints of a limited tax base; how do you attract new residents and businesses to a city that, though improving, still has more than its share of image problems?

Equally complex are the qualities the next mayor will need to address these problems. As we listened to the long list of opinions, the thought occurred that it would be helpful if the Second Coming were to occur sometime between now and Election Day, and the new messiah turned out to be a mayoral candidate. We get the distinct impression the next mayor will almost have to be a miracle worker to deal with all of the challenges confronting this city.

We were told that he or she will need to have the courage to confront the city’s labor unions on the issue of privatization while at the same time inspiring our civil servants to better serve. The mayor has to put the interests of the city above all else, but at the same time promote the entire region and work cooperatively with our suburban neighbors. Improve city services while dealing with a struggling tax base and a declining economy … balance corporate interests against those of small businesses against the needs of residents … deal with the polarizing effects of race relations when many people want to pretend that no problems exist…

Perhaps most important of all is the quality that is most difficult to quantify: leadership. The ability to inspire, and empower, to create a broad vision and to withstand the onslaught of inevitable criticism while pursuing it, all the while paying attention to the nuts and bolts details necessary to making a city function efficiently day to day.

And one more thing — the ability to turn water into wine could really come in handy from time to time.

Heaster Wheeler
Executive director, Detroit NAACP

The new mayor will have to have several critical qualities. Whoever it is will have to be a visionary. They will have to have collaborative skills. And they will need a good sense of Detroit’s history, because many of the issues that we are facing today are directly related to things that happened 25, 35, even 45 years ago. Issues ranging from insurance redlining to police insensitivity didn’t just start yesterday, and you have to understand them in their historical context in order to be able to address them.

The new mayor must also have some personal depth and a strong sense of compassion, because this is a city that has a lot of issues that come with poverty. I believe that Detroit is a very resilient town, but every now and then I feel like Detroiters stop believing in themselves. Consequently, at the same time you are trying to build neighborhoods and build the city’s tax base, you have to build up the people who live here. You have to advocate self-reliance, you have to help build up the neighborhood block clubs.

Particularly important is the issue of race. There has to be an ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusivity. The reality is that black people don’t generally trust white people, and white people generally distrust black people. The mayor has to have an instinctive grasp of these issues. I don’t want to sugarcoat it: I think that the mayor has to work on race issues every day.

The other two significant factors the mayor of Detroit has to be able to deal with are unions and the auto industry. Whoever is the mayor of this city has to have the capacity to deal with both of those issues.

Neighborhoods are also an important issue. Many of our neighborhoods are struggling. There have to be programs to address the needs of our neighborhoods immediately.

To succeed, the mayor has to be idealistic, has to be passionate. And he has to keep hope alive, because at the end of the day, we all need hope.

Question for the candidates: What will be your top priority for shaping the city of Detroit’s future?

Grace Lee Boggs
Community and civil rights activist
Co-founder, Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit

The first thing our new mayor will need is the courage to refuse campaign donations from developers and corporations. The reason we have never been able to get down to rebuilding this city is because of the outside money that goes into funding campaigns, causing elected officials to become beholden to the big contributors instead of their true constituents. You can only rebuild a city on a firm foundation, and the foundation has to be the people at the neighborhood level. Every politician runs on the platform that they will create safe, livable neighborhoods, but that never happens because of the clout held by big developers and corporations. The new mayor will also need the wisdom to see that the surest way to rebuild Detroit is by making our neighborhoods safer, healthier and livelier, and that we can achieve this almost overnight by involving our children in community-building activities like planting community gardens, taking responsibility for neighborhood streets, organizing neighborhood health fairs, recycling, etc.

The problem is that most politicians don’t really have confidence in the people. They don’t really believe if you mobilize people, changes can take place. But you don’t build a city with brick and mortar. You build a city with people believing they can accomplish miracles. Detroit needs a movement to rebuild it, and a movement is made up of people doing things they never thought they could do. All over the world, people are wondering if this can be done in Detroit. But with the right kind of leadership, and the right kind of consciousness, the vacant spaces we see all around us would not look like blight, they would look like opportunities where we can create something new.

Question for the candidates: Do you have the courage to refuse campaign donations from developers and corporations?

David Littmann
Chief economist, Comerica

For our next mayor to be successful, to ensure the continuity of Detroit’s economic comeback, it is going to take a person with supreme courage and focus. There has to be a system of more competitive bidding for the provision of city services so that the taxpayer is awarded with efficiency and security of service. I am talking about areas such as water, trash, lighting, parks and transportation. That doesn’t mean the existing workforce couldn’t bid and get the jobs, but there has to be accountability and incentive to serve the taxpayers and not the workers themselves.

But the inertia from 30 years of doing things in a familiar, comfortable way is the most difficult thing to overcome. You have to be able to point to other cities that have moved forward, cities like Indianapolis or San Diego or Baltimore or Philadelphia, where they have liberalized the provision of services, and show how much taxpayers there have benefited. When you do that, it is harder for the naysayers not to go along with experiment.

Also, there must be a liberalization of licensing, and a liberalization of rules and regulations regarding the start-up of new businesses. And the inventory of city property has to revert to the private sector though competitive bidding. As it is now, instead of being productive this property is a drag on city revenues, and a drag on employment possibilities.

Another area fraught with problems is the school district. Detroit needs a viable school system. For that to occur, it must be subject to competition.

In all these areas, competition is the vehicle. While it is a very hard adjustment to make, it is the economically correct future.

Question for the candidates: Are you in favor of competitively bidding city services?

N. Charles Anderson
CEO and president, Detroit Urban League

I still contend that a city should operate like a major corporation. Some of the things that a leader of a major corporation should have are a good working knowledge of and some experience running an organization, managing a large budget and a large number of people. When I say good business acumen, that includes some knowledge of human resource management and labor relations and finance management. Being able to challenge the department heads to really see if they are being as efficient as they can be in operating the city services.

I think Mayor Archer raised the standards and expectations of services of the citizens. He talked enough about being a world-class city. I think in a sense people wanted and expected more. He got the Department of Public Works to be more reliable in picking up trash and bulk trash. The mayor has been repaving roads at a rate of 20-plus miles a year, and don’t think he’s received the credit for that.

I think that making sure that our Police Department is well-managed and better received in the community is one of the biggest challenges facing the next mayor. Whether it’s the Fire Department or the Police Department, we need to make sure they have the resources to manage in such a way that the services citizens receive are good and response time to a police call doesn’t take long and they have time to work as preventative agencies as opposed to responding agencies.

There has to be resolution around the lighting department — whether to sell it or get the funds to bring it up to modern status — not just first-class status, but modern status.

Question for the candidates: What qualifications and skills do you have to meet these challenges?

L. Brooks Patterson
County executive, Oakland County

I think the most-needed quality of the next mayor is the ability to hire the best and the brightest and put them as head of each department and get the hell out of the way. I mean it. A lot of people pick cronies and don’t get the best talent, and the administration suffers for it.

Number two, I suppose, is the ability to make the tough decision. That’s why we get paid big bucks. They all will not be pluses, so the mayor needs to have the intestinal fortitude to make the tough calls. They have to be a little bit of motivator, an inspiration to the team so they achieve lofty goals set for them. And they need to be able to read financial statements and know where your company or city is.

The city of Detroit has numerous challenges: the restoration of city services, lowering the cost of doing business in the city, fixing an abysmal educational system, and dealing with crime. I think that if crime is unchecked then everything else will be negatively impacted, and residents and businesses move away.

I don’t think there will be any issues with respect to Oakland County except what Archer did to open up friendly negotiations and maintain a working relationship with all the suburbs. He restored civility to politics in the region and extended an olive branch. In return he got lots of support.

I don’t have any criticisms. I have been very supportive of him. I think he has the toughest political job in the state of Michigan.

Question for the candidates: Describe your style of management. I’d like to know what we’re in for.

Nasser Beydoun
Executive director, American-Arab Chamber of Commerce

Detroit is at a crossroads right now. The next mayor can either take the city to new heights or take it to new lows. The person needs to have strong leadership qualities, the ability to make difficult decisions early in his administration, and be impervious to political pressures. He must come in with convictions and be willing to stick his neck out. He also needs to be able to bring people together and motivate Detroiters to take pride in their city and be an ambassador to other communities.

We have a lot of money invested in the city of Detroit. We want to protect our investments and ensure that the citizens of Detroit have a quality of life similar to their suburban counterparts and help with social issues that are unique to Detroit. We want to see neighborhood stores and shopping districts revitalized. It’s in our interest to see Detroit come back.

You have to have good schools, public safety, parks and recreation, and even a cultural aspect. Detroit has a great cultural aspect but not the schools and public safety. Once you do that, you can work on the economic revitalization of the city.

The Archer administration was good at reshaping Detroit’s image outside — they did a wonderful job. They also were able to lure GM and Compuware downtown and rebuild the area surrounding the theater district. Those were major achievements. However, the shortcomings were that they were not able to tackle the bureaucracy at City Hall. You don’t have a business-friendly atmosphere at the city or a master plan for clearing out urban blight. You don’t have a plan for making sure you are utilizing your civil servants to their utmost potential.

Question for the candidates: How do you plan on fixing the Police Department?

Maggie DeSantis
Executive director, Warren/Conner Development Coalition

We need one hell of a city manager. I think that has to be the basic experience someone brings. Beyond that in terms of management style, they have to surround themselves with people who are a lot smarter than them, people who’ve got experience dealing with basic city services.

City services have not gotten better in the last eight years. In a city where the tax base is low, how do you find enough revenue to keep the city clean and landscaped? That’s one problem. Another problem is how do you deal with too many commercial strips and get small-scale neighborhood redevelopment? How do you deal with what I call the small violations of the law that kill off the city, things like littering, building-code violations, lack of enforcement of tax collection?

You have to do all that with a tight budget. I think it’s doable if you are smart about it and bring in people who can do it and reprioritize. I’m sorry, but spending what we spend on the Grand Prix and what we spend on assembling land for casinos is unconscionable.

I think the most-funded area should be the Parks and Recreation Department, planting, cutting, landscaping and maintaining parks and recreation centers. The next would be the departments that enforce building codes and clean up the litter. And from there everything else would be a lower priority.

During the Archer administration, all the resources went to downtown casinos and stadiums. It was just eight years of the wrong priorities. I thought that Archer actually meant all his rhetoric about the neighborhoods, but it just didn’t happen.

Question for the candidates: What would be your absolute, most-heavily funded priority as mayor and why?

Chuck Stokes
Editorial and public-affairs director, WXYZ-TV, Channel 7

These are tough times to be mayor of any big city, but Detroit presents some unique challenges. This city is still trying to dig itself out of the big hole it has been trying to come out of since the 1960s and ’70s. We’re making a lot of progress. A lot of positive things are going on. To keep moving in that direction, the next individual who becomes mayor has to be open-minded, a good listener. And I think they have to be smart. They will have to be entrepreneurially minded. When they have good projects on the table, they have to be able to recognize them, and give young entrepreneurs the opportunity to make things happen.

The next person in that job will have to be a diplomat, and an ambassador for the city. I think Dennis Archer did a good job at that. And the next mayor will have to have a good relationship with Lansing.

The person will also have to be innovative. They almost have to outthink their suburban counterparts and come up with the sort of ideas that, when L. Brooks Patterson or John Hertel hear them, they’ll have to say, “Damn, I wish I had thought of that.”

They will have to be innovative with housing, innovative with tax stuff. They will also have to be a taskmaster, and they will have to be tough. They have to realize they are probably going to make some enemies, they are not going to be liked by everybody. They have to be thick-skinned.

My guess, based on the economy, is that the next mayor is going to be facing some really tough financial decisions. Probably more than anything, the person has to be a decision-maker. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons, but you can’t study things to death. You have to make the tough decisions, then be willing to fight for them and push them through. You have to be a leader in many respects, but you cannot be antagonistic all the time. You have to figure out who your allies are going to be, and sometimes you have to be willing to work with your enemies.

Image is a big issue, but you can’t just go out and get a good ad agency to come up with some cutesy phrase saying what’s good about Detroit. You have to fix Detroit, and when you do that, the city will start promoting itself.

Question for the candidates: What steps are you going to take to make Detroit one of the most livable cities in America? Please be specific. I don’t want to hear generalities.

Ernest Johnson
President, Community Coalition

We need somebody that is neighborhood oriented. Right now we done had enough emphasis on downtown. Now, I think we need to have an emphasis on neighborhoods and that will trickle to downtown. It will bring down crime and (bring) morale up.

The next mayor should want to work with the Citizen District Councils, the block clubs and precinct delegates. I think you can organize our communities through these things. If you make people feel like they are a part of the process in the city, it will create more pride and you can get more done. I believe if you do that, downtown will take care of itself.

I think the biggest challenge is building up the morale of this so-called world-class city. People feel like this is a Third World city. People are shocked and weary now, they aren’t trusting and believing. We need someone who will change the perception of politicians. The next mayor has to do some healing and build the confidence and make people proud. I think Coleman Young made mistakes too, but he gave people pride. He represented strength and built pride in our city.

The next mayor has to be strong and humble and be willing to listen. If he can sit down and be inclusive and listen to everybody, even if he disagrees, he will have a better chance of building pride and confidence. If Archer had listened to us, we may not have tried to recall him.

I’d rather that he’d never been mayor. I can’t think of anything I like that he done. He dance real good. I like the way he bop.

Question for the candidates: What would be their number-one priority?

Mary Hebert
Executive director, Rivertown Business Association

Guts and ingenuity are the top two qualities the next mayor should have.

They will have tough decisions to make about the neighborhoods, city-owned real estate, the east riverfront and Belle Isle. They will have to find more cost-effective ways to manage the city, better managers and better technicians — find them and keep them.

Transit is a big one. How will they support a regional transit authority? Will sprawl continue to be generated because people are living outside the city or will that trend reverse so people come back in the city? Will we continue to build roads? How much more cost-effective may it be to consider rail of one kind or another?

How will they find ways to deliver city services and wrestle with issues of privatization? And how will they continue to improve the city’s image so we attract residents? Employers and employees want the city and its assets to be the best. So we have to be better than anything offered in any suburb and to be competitive. We need to develop around that.

We also need to develop a stronger relationship with our closest suburb, which is Windsor. It’s a strong image piece and an amenity no suburban community has and it gives us a competitive advantage.

I believe Mayor Archer was the beginning of a great turnaround for the city, and if he did not serve I think the city would not have improved. He did a formidable job. I totally disagreed with his polices about casinos on the riverfront, but overall he did a lot of things that were very helpful.

Question for the candidates: Would you propose changes in the city tax structure, why and why not?

Ron Scott
Television producer, “community transformationist”
Host, “For My People”

I think the new mayor will have to be focused on taking direction from the people in terms of analyzing what their needs are, whether it happens to be basic city services, or a vision for the future of Detroit. Creating a world-class city doesn’t come from the top down; it comes from the city’s residents. Because of that, there is a tremendous need to glean from the public what its interests and desires are. And you do that from constant interaction in a variety of ways, from focus groups to meeting with block clubs. No citizen should feel that their interests are not in some way being accorded consideration.

In addition to that, the new mayor needs to be an administrator, not a propagandist. To put it bluntly, we need someone who knows how to make sure that the buses run on time and the garbage is picked up. But they need to know how to accomplish that without being antagonistic to city workers. There is this ideological position that private industry can do a better job than civil servants. I don’t subscribe to that. There are a lot of citizens who decided that they want to be civil servants, who want to do a job that gives back to the city. These are people who really, really want to serve. The mayor has to provide the kind of executive leadership that inspires that sort of attitude.

The matter of policing has always been a major, major thing in this city. We have to put a stop to the reign of terror that is happening. The current mayor has had a quasi-hands-off position regarding the Police Department. The new mayor has to be a strong commander in chief who clearly indicates that if there is wrongdoing there will be the certainty of punishment, and if that means bumping heads with the Detroit Police Officers Association, so be it. Many, many officers I have talked to want to do positive things. They just need support. That department can be changed.

There are so many issues that the mayor will have to deal with. The mayor has to come up with a sane drug policy, one that focuses on treatment rather than incarceration. We have to have a constructive environmental policy to clean our air and deal with the incredibly high rates of respiratory illness in this city. And the new mayor will have to find ways to stimulate new technologies and approaches, things like urban agriculture and building on our historical connections to the entertainment industry. Instead of looking to that big grandfather corporation that is going to save us all, which is a result of the historical influence and legacy of the auto industry, we instead need to be looking for ways to foster the growth of many new children that will lead the way into the future.

The new mayor is also going to have to have a passion for this city. For all his rights, wrongs and otherwise, the late Coleman Young had a passion for Detroit. The citizens of this city have a tough and tenacious manner of doing things, and they respond to that type of attitude. They need to know that their mayor has a passionate love for the city. That is what energizes them, and drives people to want to get involved. But they need to know that the next mayor just
isn’t using Detroit as a stepping-stone for higher office. They need to know that there is a social contract, and that the new mayor is going to be there for the city of Detroit.

Question for the candidates: I’d ask the candidates how many of them would be willing to serve the city of Detroit for the first two years of their administration free of charge? That may sound like a frivolous question, but I believe it will take a willingness to make that sort of commitment for the new mayor to really do the job.

Karen Kavanaugh
Planning director, Southwest Detroit Business Association

Before taking my current job, I was administrative assistant to Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey for 14 years, so I’ve seen how the city works both from the inside and the outside. And I can tell you, from the outside, dealing with the bureaucracy can be very frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing city workers. There are a lot of good people working for the city, a lot of people who really care and are working hard to do good things, but it is often difficult for them to get things done because of the system that they are operating in. There needs to be accountability from the top on down, with strong leadership in every single department. But for that to happen, there has to be a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished, with clearly defined goals. And you have to be on top of that every single day, and there have to be consequences if things don’t turn around.

One person can’t do it all. That is why the mayor has to be someone who can build bridges and form consensus. The responsibility of rebuilding and revitalizing this city rests with all the different sectors, the business community and nongovernmental organizations, the residents and the state.

The person who is mayor of Detroit also has to be able to talk about race issues openly and honestly. It is a huge component, especially when it comes to issues of redevelopment and revitalization. That is why the mayor has to be a bridge-builder racially too. We need someone who is willing to acknowledge what is going on, and then works to address it.

Question for the candidates: My question for the candidates is a simple one. I want to know: Why are you running for mayor?

Mike Fisher
President, Detroit Community Initiative, Inc., in northeast Detroit

The ideal candidate will be someone familiar with the city budget, city department operations and the priorities and frustrations of the communities. They must also have the willingness to go in, roll up their selves and battle for neighborhood revitalization.

They also must have the ability to maintain the political and corporate relationships that have been developed during the Archer administration. He did an excellent job at bringing corporate investment into the city, which is where it has to start. He brought the right temperament to the city to prepare us for this next level we have to work at, which will take somebody who is like a CEO who is hands-on.

I think the biggest challenge is to break down the walls of apathy of corruption and poor performance that exist in the city departments. We cannot exist as business as usual within our city departments. I don’t believe that Mayor Archer was quick enough to make corrections or chastise his department heads who showed a consistent degree of ineffectiveness.

Another continual issue is the livable housing stock. It’s not livable. We have a number of homes being torn down and need in-fill housing. We also have absolutely no senior housing in our neighborhood.

Public safety is needed. Businesses are being robbed. The neighborhood credit union has been robbed three times in the past year. Walgreen’s was robbed, and McDonald’s was robbed. Businesses will not build if they don’t see it as safe to operate.

Question for the candidates: What charge are you going to give your city department heads that will result in a dramatic change in the city service delivery, and how will you hold those department heads accountable?

Mildred Gaddis
Talk radio host, WCHB-AM 1200

The next mayor of Detroit must be brave. Politicians in this city have a tendency not to tell people what they need to hear. Instead they tend to tell the voters what they think the voters want to hear. But what we really need now is a candidate brave enough to tell Detroiters that unless they are willing to roll up their sleeves and make some sacrifices there will be tough times ahead.

Let me give you an example. One of the raps Dennis Archer received was that this city wasn’t clean enough. You need someone who will stand up and tell the people responsible to clean up their act.

Taxes are another issue. The tax base in this city has continued to erode, but no politician is brave enough to talk about that. The next mayor has to challenge this city’s residents to do their part.

Also, there is this great myth circulating in this city that we can move forward by rebuilding the neighborhoods first and alone. But if we are not successful in attracting good, solid companies to locate in Detroit to contribute to the tax base and provide jobs, the new neighborhood concept will never be a reality.

The problem is, if the (candidate) is really honest, that person might not be elected, because people often do not want to hear the truth when it is not very palatable for them. But the next mayor needs to be honest, and maintain a high level of integrity. We cannot afford to slide back to a time when our bond ratings were so low and corporations would not want to do business with the city.

The next mayor must also be a sensitive, relatable mayor who has the common touch. In this city, if you’re not a person with the common touch, people become suspicious of you. I guess it’s a cultural thing, but it’s really true. At the same time, they must be someone who’s not easily intimidated by the people who can holler the loudest. There are some groups in this city whose livelihoods are based on being agitators. That’s all they do. The next mayor must be someone not intimidated by those kinds of people.

Question for the candidates: Who is willing to tell the truth about the price tag for this city’s growth over the next four years?

Mel Ravitz
Former member, Detroit City Council

There are two, maybe three major issues I can see, one of which is to organize the city bureaucracy so that it is able to provide services to the people of Detroit. That includes all the departments. The efficiency of city government would go a long way to lifting morale.

Rehabbing and renovating Detroit’s neighborhoods is a major issue. They have been neglected and allowed to decline. The small businesses along the streets and the neighborhoods need to be given a lift; that goes a long way to giving people confidence.

Another priority is the improvement of the transit system, whether it is a mass carrier or an improved bus system. We still have a third of Detroiters dependent on public transportation. Those issues absolutely must be at the top. One more, the integrity of people running the city — that goes to the Police Department and the Fire Department and various other departments. The city of Detroit in the hands of the next mayor must be made honest to the point where the people of the city believe it is run honestly and with no corruption.

I don’t expect miracles, it will depend on the mayor and who his appointments are going to be. His deputy mayor and heads of departments, if those are people who are qualified for the position and not simply political appointees, that will give confidence to people.

What Dennis Archer has done is he has given Detroit a better image in the suburbs, and he’s a good ambassador outside the city and in Lansing. Other than that, the areas I consider critical to be done were apparently not done by him. We had eight years where attention went elsewhere.

Question for the candidates: Will you do all those things I suggested and what is your priority for them and how do you expect to do them?

Richard Blouse
President and CEO, Detroit Regional Chamber

One of the great attributes of Dennis Archer was his ability to travel the world and promote the Detroit region — and he did promote the region, not just the city. I would love to see another mayor who had that ability. He also did well at bringing business back into the city. The next mayor, in addition, needs to get deeper in fixing city hall so it works, dealing with the dead land and vacant buildings and getting into the neighborhoods and start turning them around. I think that is the obvious next step.

You still have an entrenched bureaucracy in the city. Funding is a continual problem. We get critical of the police and fire departments, but do they have proper equipment and facilities? We have neighborhoods that have almost gone over the edge. It is hard to determine who owns the land and make it ready for investment. Anyone who believes that is an easy task should not be running for mayor.

Question for the candidates: What is their specific agenda and time line for bringing the neighborhoods back?

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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