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Lessenberry: Detroit Mayor Duggan impressive at Mackinac conference

There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin that popped into my head this morning. When Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention back in 1787, a woman asked him, “What kind of government have you given us?”

He said, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” He meant, keep it from reverting back to a tyrannical monarchy.

Every year, the state’s business leaders and politicians flock to Mackinac Island. The media happily go too, because there are hundreds of targets of opportunity under the same roof.

While the conference always has a theme, and there are many earnest seminars on topics like workforce training and STEM education, the conference is usually dominated by some news event.

And this was, indeed, the year of Detroit. Detroit mayors always come to Mackinac. Most of those who pay to attend this conference are white, prosperous, Republican, and from the suburbs.

In past years, they usually have expressed mild optimism, said nice things about regional cooperation, and forget them soon after they have crossed the ferry and driven a few miles south.

Mainly, that’s because they really didn’t see any hope things would change or improve. This year, however, was different.

Mayor Mike Duggan blew the conference away with an energetic, illustrated presentation in which he gave hard numbers about how many houses have been sold, absentee slumlords sued, new street light bulbs put in. He seemed to be everywhere, working the crowd, pitching his summer job program for teenagers.

This year, the goal is 5,000 kids in jobs. His message to area-wide businesses was simple, hire one or more of these kids, pay them something, and the city will pay half the cost.

Yesterday, I sat down with Sheila Cockrel, a person whose opinions about Detroit I deeply respect. She is a white woman who has lived in the city her entire 66 years, and says she’ll never leave. She served on City Council for 16 years. Once a firebrand radical, she came to believe an emergency manager was necessary.

Now, she thinks this is the moment. She believes Duggan’s teen jobs program is beyond crucial. "Nothing could be more important than installing a culture of work and skills and responsibility," she said.

Tearing down blighted buildings is not enough unless we address the people with blighted lives who often huddle inside, people with few skills and limited education, people who sometimes have no traditions of responsibility or work.

With Duggan, she told me, what you see is what you get: a whirling dervish of energy who loves his job 24/7. This week, he drove himself to the island. When he arrived too late for the last ferry, he waved off efforts to arrange a special boat and stayed the night in a simple motel near the Mackinac Bridge.

If the city is ever going to be transformed, this is the time. But he doesn’t have long. This week on Mackinac, I saw the state’s business leaders suspend their cynicism about Detroit.

He has their support, as Benjamin Franklin said, if he can keep it. A year from now, they are going to need to be equally impressed by Detroit’s post-bankruptcy progress and will want to see the results.