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The Challenge for Detroit's Next Mayor: Getting Along with the Neighbors

Regime change is coming to Detroit. The next mayor will have an opportunity to heal the long dysfunctional marriage between the city and its suburbs.
by | August 12, 2013

Whoever wins the Detroit mayor's election this November, whether it's Mike Duggan or Benny Napoleon, may be able to do something that has eluded his reform-minded predecessors, Dennis Archer and Dave Bing: to break free of the regime that has dominated the city since the election of Coleman Young in 1973. In that will lie an opportunity to forge something crucial to the city's rebirth, a new relationship with its neighbors.

Floyd Hunter, in "Community Power Structure: a Study of Decision Makers," and Clarence Stone, in "Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988," built their work around the thesis that a city's policy agenda is liable to be dominated by a small, self-perpetuating group of people acting in mutual self-interest and that the mayor who wins an election in opposition to such a regime will be largely blocked from carrying out a different agenda.

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"Regime theory," Stone writes in the abstract to a recent scholarly article, "starts with the proposition that governing capacity is not easily captured through the electoral process. Governing capacity is created and maintained by bringing together coalition partners with appropriate resources, nongovernmental as well as governmental."

A few months after the new mayor takes office next January, the grinding, wrenching process that Gov. Rick Snyder and emergency manager Kevyn Orr have begun will end as the city emerges from its bankruptcy proceedings. The existing regime has fought Snyder and Orr bitterly. The temper of the struggle indicates the stakes: For them this is an existential fight. But it seems clear that the regime is losing in a way it never did in its confrontations with Archer and with Bing, the current mayor. (Of course, there was no confrontation with former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a kleptocrat who apparently had no agenda other than stroking his ego and lining his pockets.)

Duggan, a former hospital CEO, and Napoleon, Wayne County's sheriff, were the top vote-getters in last week's mayoral primary. The winner of the November election will inherit a city that, if its bankruptcy proceedings go well, could be on its way to a transformation. Detroit's finances will have been restructured, billions of dollars of liabilities will have disappeared, and modest reinvestments in basic services will have begun. But the biggest opportunity for the new mayor will be the chance to set a new direction in governance. A central part of that new direction should be an attempt by the city to reach a new accord with its suburban neighbors.

This certainly will be a huge challenge. In an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, Drake Bennett and Mark Niquette describe a relationship between Detroit and its wealthier northern suburban neighbors "characterized on both sides by anger, resentment, fear, and caricature," adding that Detroit's bankruptcy filing "is merely the latest chapter in the long dysfunctional marriage between a once-thriving city and its suburbs."

Leaders of Detroit's suburban jurisdictions should welcome any overtures from the city. A fact rarely acknowledged in discussions of Detroit and other distressed cities is that while cities and their suburbs tend to rise together, they also fall together. Jordan Rappaport, an economist with the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, demonstrated this conclusively in his 2005 study, "The Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs." "The faster a metro area's city portion grew, the faster its suburbs tended to grow as well," he wrote. "The faster a metro area's city portion lost population, the slower its suburbs tended to grow." The latter, of course, has been the experience for metropolitan Detroit.

Virtually all of the region's population growth had occurred by 1970, and metro Detroit's population is less today than it was in 1970. The region's share of the national population peaked at 2.1 percent in 1970 and has fallen steadily, to 1.4 percent in 2012. The metro area has shed about 350,000 jobs since 2000. By comparison, employment levels in two other north-central metropolitan areas, Toledo and Milwaukee, have nearly returned to where they were, while Minneapolis/St. Paul has added jobs.

In today's world, no one jurisdiction can provide the amenities and create the conditions optimal for success. For Detroit and its region to thrive, it will not be enough to reinvent the city. The relationship between Detroit and its suburbs will have to be reinvented as well. Together they can fall farther and farther behind the rest of the country, or they can forge a new regime built on regional collaboration. Forging that new regime should be at the top of the agenda for Detroit's next mayor.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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