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Detroit Mayor's "State of the City" speech reminds me of heroes from the past

Feb 11, 2015

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan riveted his town for nearly an hour last night with a state of the city address glowing with infectious, can-do optimism. 

Things are getting better, he insisted, facts and figures rolling off his tongue. The city is selling vacant properties no one thought possible to sell. Police response times are much better. Detroit has twice as many ambulances as it did.

More cops are on the street; the murder rate is down, and 80 new buses are on the way.  More than 200 city parks have reopened, thanks in large part to churches and community groups volunteering to clean them up.

Detroit has put in 35,000 new streetlights, with more to come. The emergency manager is gone; the city is running itself and this year will have a truly balanced budget for the first time in at least a dozen years, the mayor said to wild applause.

We haven’t seen anything like this in a long, long time.

I was reminded of two aristocratic, patrician Presidents, one of whom inspired America to do better, and another who gave the country hope and confidence when it most needed it. Mike Duggan is a short, bald, chunky Irishman who looks nothing like either John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But I had the clear feeling he was, perhaps unconsciously, channeling both of them.

“My friends, this is your problem, no less than it is mine,” FDR told the nation at the height of the banking crisis when he first took office, adding, “together, we cannot fail.”

When the mayor talked about the problems that still remain, about response times that are better but still not good enough, about the need for more jobs and training and housing, I distinctly heard echoes JFK’s famous inaugural address:

“All this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

The difference, however, is that Mike Duggan wasn’t talking about limits. He was talking about doing. It seems as if he’d been training for this all his life, even though it seems unlikely that a decade ago he could have imagined ever being mayor.

Hard to remember now, but 10 years ago, Detroit reelected Kwame Kilpatrick.

Less than three years ago, the atmosphere in the city and within city government was one of bleak despair and bitter nastiness.

Possibly the biggest sign of Duggan’s political genius is that he has made an enthusiastic partner out of a woman most thought would be an obstructionist, City Council President Brenda Jones, who was beaming last night.

“I knew we could do it,” she said. “We’re going to keep working hard.”

This era of good feeling may not always last. Detroit has deep-seated economic and other problems that will not be solved in the life of this administration, if ever.

But Duggan’s troops are really trying, and trying creative solutions, like money for low-income families to do home repairs, and taking them to the neighborhoods.  This may be the most fascinating story in today’s urban America, and it is far from finished yet.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.