After Politically Exhausting Year, Detroit Welcomes New Government

It would be putting it lightly to say that 2009 was not a good year for the city of Detroit. Four mayoral elections, sky rocketing unemployment, a troubled auto industry, and a major city council scandal are just a few of the developments to rock the Motor City in 2009. But Tuesday marks a new day in Detroit as a newly-elected city council gathers for the first time and prepares for the uphill journey of restoring the city to its once vibrant state. Host Michel Martin talks with newly-elected City Council President Charles Pugh and Councilmember Saunteel Jenkins.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up - is an Obama administration program to stem the tide of foreclosures doing more harm than good? Some critics suggest it is. We'll put that question to our money coach later in the program. But first we are going to spend some time in Detroit. Many people were saying they are glad to put 2009 behind them. The residents of Detroit have any number of reasons to feel that way. Four mayoral elections, skyrocketing unemployment and all that goes with that, and a major city council scandal.

But today marks a new day in Detroit history. In just a little while the city council will meet for the first time this year and among them will be five newly elected council members, who say they want to be part of a new era in Detroit. Joining us now are two of those new members - the newly elected city council president, Charles Pugh, and city council member Saunteel Jenkins. They both joined us from member station WDET. Congratulations to you. Happy New Year to you both.

Ms. SAUNTEEL JENKINS (Detroit City Council Member): Happy New Year, Michel. Thank you for having us.

Mr. CHARLES PUGH (President, Detroit City Council): And I must say, I love you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PUGH: I do. I listen to you every day. I've been watching you over the years, so I'm thrilled to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. That's a nice way to start the new year off. So let me ask you both why you wanted to serve at a time like this. You both had successful careers in other areas. Charles, you were a television reporter, and Saunteel, you were a social worker. Neither of them is an especially easy job, but it has to easier than running for office at a time like this. So Charles, why don't you start - why did you want to be in office at a time like this?

Mr. PUGH: Well, I got tired of reporting on what was going wrong and not being part of the solutions. I was born and raised in this town. I love this city with all my soul, which was why I was serving as a journalist. I wanted to serve my community, and I just, you know, was watching the city council over the years and decided that, you know, I could do a better job. I could do a more competent, straightforward, a better representation of the people of the city of Detroit, of all people. So you know, I ran and we did pretty good.

MARTIN: Saunteel, what about you?

Ms. JENKINS: Well, you know, I used to be chief of staff for the former president of city council, the late Maryann Mahaffey. So I had seen it done well, and Maryann was also a social worker. One of the stories I always talked about is her telling me that social workers put Band-Aids on wounds caused by poor public policy. And as a social worker watching all of the negativity going on in city council and the fact that the people's business was not being attended to, it just, you know, lit that fire in my belly.

MARTIN: One of the arguments that your new mayor - well, not new, I mean he was elected in a special election and won a full term in a more recent election. Mayor Dave Bing, the former basketball great, says that in essence that - these are my words not his - that in essence government leaders have been functioning there as if they are in denial about the realities on the ground. Here is a short clip of from our most recent conversation with him. Here it is.

Mayor DAVE BING (Detroit, Michigan): Detroit's been in a free fall in terms of loss of population for the last 10 to 20 years, and we haven't made the adjustments over on our revenue side, and our structural problems here in the city have not been addressed. So we've kept running this city as if we had 1.4 or 1.5 million residents when in fact we're hovering around 900,000. So our revenue stream has dropped precipitously and, you know, we just haven't done what we should have done to have a balanced budget.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask each of you, do you think that that's true and what is to be done about that? Charles Pugh, I'll ask you first. Is that true? And what are you going to do about that?

Mr. PUGH: I couldn't have said it better myself. And we need to encourage him. Our budget process has begun. And we need to encourage the mayor to make the necessary consolidations and eliminations, and if for some reason we don't see those in the budget we're presented with, I think that we are prepared to be bold and to propose them ourselves, because, you know, we are at a critical time in our city where we have seen other cities recently here in our metro Detroit area who have been taken over by receivers and who have emergency financial managers.

Our school system is right now being run by an emergency financial manager. So you know, our state is very clear that cities who cannot handle their own finances properly, then they'll send somebody in to do so, and we don't want that here.

MARTIN: Saunteel, what about you? I mean what that generally mean just cutting services.

Ms. JENKINS: Absolutely, and I agree that we need to cut not only the size of city government, we have to cut the size of our residential areas in the city of Detroit. We're almost 140 square miles in the city of Detroit, built for two million people, with less than one million. We have to bring our residents closer together, which will make it easier and cheaper to provide city services, and we have not started to move in that direction yet.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with two new members of the Detroit City Council - Charles Pugh, he's the city council president; and Saunteel Jenkins, she's newly elected to the council also. Today is their first day in office. And you know, one of the interesting things about the election - there are a number of interesting aspects of this election. Charles, of course you are the city's first openly gay political leader - a milestone, certainly a milestone. And as I understand it, your sexual orientation was never made an issue of, at least not publicly, in the course in the campaign. What do you make of that?

Mr. PUGH: You know, I think this allowed Detroiters to show their real humanity and to show that we're not bigots. You know, I've been out now publicly for more than five years, and so, you know, it was old news really. People knew already when I was a newscaster on the radio and on TV that I was gay. And you know, and it allowed Detroiters to say, you know, what, we know that and we respect you, and now what are you going to do for the city? And so this was a - I feel that I was fully vetted and that I was elected on my ideas, and on my qualifications to do this job, and being gay did not hinder me in any way.

MARTIN: Do you think that it contradicts this conception or perception that has taken hold that African-Americans are particularly resistant to openly gay candidates or leadership figures?

Mr. PUGH: Yeah. I think it flies in the face of that. I was endorsed by two major religious organizations here in town. And they were very supportive of me. I got the support of some major pastors here in town, some pretty big mega-churches. And I'm sure that there were individuals who were not comfortable with it, who don't understand why somebody would say that they're gay and be - and asking somebody to vote for them. But this is a new day. This is a whole decade into the 21st century, and you know, people who are qualified, who want to step up and serve the city, should be allowed to.

MARTIN: And Saunteel, the other irony here, of course, is that you and Mr. Pugh were both facing foreclosure of the properties that you owned, which is certainly, as we will discuss later in the program, not an uncommon phenomenon in the current era, but in some places that would be considered disqualifying for office. There are those who would say, gee, if you can't handle your finances, you certainly can't handle the city's. Why do you think it wasn't a factor in your election? How do you think voters addressed that question?

Ms. JENKINS: Well, I think the voters were asking - are you competent and qualified? Do you have integrity and do you want to serve the people? And I believe that in this election that was the main question. People wanted know your stance on public policy and your qualifications to serve in office. With the condition that we're in, people just didn't have time to focus on personal attacks and personal issues, and the candidates themselves did not allow the election or the conversation to go in that direction.

Mr. PUGH: Plus the reality is, Michel, we are facing one of the highest foreclosure rates in America. So quite literally there were thousands of people who understood the situation we were facing and did not realize that they were good at their jobs as well and did not see that as a disqualifying factor for us.

MARTIN: Were you both able to stabilize your situations though? Were you both able to - I guess I'm asking how are you?

Mr. PUGH: I got elected.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: But part of the issue with modifying the loans is that they won't allow you to modify the loan unless you're in default.

Mr. PUGH: Right.

Ms. JENKINS: So it wasn't - at least - and I won't speak for you, Charles�

Mr. PUGH: Uh-huh.

Ms. JENKINS:�but for me it wasn't an issue of, you're going - the sheriffs are going to show up at your house. It was an issue of, you're in a bad loan, how do you get out of it? And that's the only option given by the mortgage company.

Mr. PUGH: And for me, I couldn't modify a loan unless I could prove income, and because I had to leave my jobs in journalism in order to run and that the election wasn't in November - wasn't until November - but I had to, you know, be out of work for about eight months and I couldn't prove income, because me -you know, the company that I started, you know, wasn't enough to pay the bills and so they would not allow me to modify the mortgage. But now I have provable income and, you know, we are in the process of modifying the mortgage, and so I live in my home, I love my home, and I'm going to stay there.

Ms. JENKINS: And the other option would have been to just walk away, which would have been easier to do, but I don't think either one of us wanted to do that. We wanted to be responsible.

MARTIN: Well, Saunteel, final thought from you. One of the, back in November a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll was published and it talked about the attitudes that Detroit residents have about the area right now, and one of the things that I think struck a number of people was a sense of optimism that Detroiters have about the future, despite the very real challenges that you face. But the other finding was that young adults are planning to leave. It said that more than four in 10 young adults said they think they have to leave the area in order to find a future. And I'd just like to ask you in just the minute or so that we have left, how do you address that?

Ms. JENKINS: Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. We have to bring more jobs here and diversify our economy in the city of Detroit, and if we offer people a way to build a career, they'll stay.

Mr. PUGH: And I think that too making Detroit a cool city, and honestly I think electing an openly gay man is part of the proof that we can be a cool city, that we can attract - that we can attract people who are diverse and who can bring an interesting element to be able to make Detroit the place that we know it can be, that really it is in many ways, and now we're seeing it demonstrated publicly, but you know, we've got to attract these millennials, and I'm very proud to say I have several of them on my staff who have gone to school around the country and all have moved back home and want to be part of this change.

MARTIN: City Council president Charles Pugh, Councilmember Saunteel Jenkins were both kind enough to join us from WDET. It is their first day in office on the Detroit City Council. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Happy New Year.

Mr. PUGH: Michel�

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you so much for inviting us, Michel.

Ms. PUGH: I love you even more now.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you both.

Mr. PUGH: Which was hard to do.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. PUGH: Thank you very much.

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