Election 2013: A Conversation With Detroit Mayoral Candidate Mike Duggan

Detroit Mayoral Candidate Mike Duggan on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Duggan campaign.

DETROIT – Mike Duggan wants to be the next mayor of Detroit, and on Nov. 5 voters will decide to either elect him or Detroit's former police chief, Benny Napoleon. Duggan sat down with BTL's co-publisher Jan Stevenson to talk about why he wants to lead our embattled city, how he plans to use his experience as a tough turnaround specialist to redirect Detroit and how having a lesbian couple within his close family has impacted his attitudes toward the LGBT community. He also talked about his role in the infamous "Bag-a-Fag" operation that entrapped gay men in Rouge Park and how his leadership at the Detroit Medical Center has prepared him to fight HIV in the city.

Q: Why do you want to be mayor and what skills do you have that would help Detroit?
A: I was born in the city and lived here as a young boy. I went to high school here and have worked here every day for the last 32 years. It breaks my heart to see the direction we are going, to see people forced to move out of their neighborhoods, and the way businesses have left town and the way violence has taken over. I just felt like we needed a mayor who has done turnarounds, who has looked bankruptcy in the eye and has restructured organizations and made them work better. So I feel like I could help and thought I'd give it a try.
At Wayne County when I came in with Ed McNamara we were facing near bankruptcy and we balanced the budget and kept it balanced for nearly 14 years. I spent four years running the Smart Bus system when it was near closure and brought in a team that got that going in the right direction. Of course, Detroit Medical Center was on the verge of shutting down ten years ago, and we brought in a great team, and now there is $850 million of new investment in the city. So there's a lot of talent in this city. We just don't have enough of it in city government and I'm going to see if I can change that.

Q: Detroit remains one of the few major cities that does not have a full time, dedicated liaison to the LGBT community. Would you create such a position?
A: I don't see it as a full time position but there is no doubt there will be senior people in my administration from the LGBT community and I would expect those individuals to act as liaisons. But my management style is not to designate somebody in just one role but to take good people and put them to work.

Q: The Midtown comeback is in part fueled by a large, active gay community, both in the business sector and especially in the large number of young residents. Would you capitalize on that energy to reinvigorate other areas of the city, and how?
A: Of course I spent the last nine years in Midtown. The DMC, Henry Ford and Wayne State contributed significantly as well with the Live Midtown Program in which we created incentives for our employees to live in the area. My intention is to keep doing the same things that we've been doing; taking abandoned houses when they are first abandoned and making them available for individuals to buy, as we did in the prosecutors office. It is a way to take really solid neighborhoods, and in some cases historic neighborhoods, and fill them in. It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight. I want to make those houses available to everybody who would like to live there.

Q: What do you think about creating a LGBT section of the city, like the Halsted area in Chicago or Greenwich Village in New York?
A: I don't think it is government's job to tell people where to live. I think it is government's job to create the environment for people to live safely. I want to create an environment where people could choose to live where they want. I don't see designating any one area in any kind of classification.

Q: How would you change or revitalize the Detroit Human Rights Department to make it a more effective protector of LGBT rights?
A: You know I want to make sure everybody's rights are protected. I'm not sure if reinvigorating the human rights department is what needs to be done or not, but I'll deal with it on a fair basis. When I was a prosecutor I made sure nobody was discriminated against, whether it was members of the Arab community following the Sept. 11 attacks where there was backlash – and I prosecuted people for that; whether it was stepping in and stopping the law enforcement decoys in Rouge Park and other places where members of the LGBT community were being entrapped, and putting an end to that. My approach was that everybody's rights need to be protected. Whether that is a human rights department, I'm not sure yet. But I will make sure that nobody is discriminated against or treated unfairly.

Q: Since you brought up Rouge Park, while you were the Wayne County Prosecutor the Detroit Police Department engaged in the infamous Bag-a-Fag sting operation, entrapping gay men. The Detroit Free Press published a leaked memo from your office detailing that sting operations in Wayne County had raised $2.4 million from fines and car impoundments, which were used to give all the assistant prosecutors a raise. You were a leader in getting the policy ultimately changed, but the whole episode has left a bad impression of you with some LGBT people. Were the fines used for the raises?
A: Not from that they weren't – absolutely not. What that was about was the hooker decoys. What was happening then – and the memo probably wasn't as well written as I would like to have made it if I could do it over again – we had an enormous problem, particularly in the first mile or two around the border of the city – with hookers. We had kids getting off the school buses and prostitutes were out soliciting openly and the vast majority of the johns were coming in from the suburbs. They were driving into the city, soliciting hookers and having sex in the cars in the neighborhoods. So what we did with the Detroit police was put female police officers as decoy hookers, and when the guys would come in and solicit them for sex we would take their car for $900. We did the same thing on the drug side. We had a lot of people coming in from the suburbs looking for drugs so we put decoy drug dealers – undercover police officers – and when they would come in and solicit to buy drugs we would take the cars.
I didn't think it was enough to prosecute the hookers and the drug dealers in the city. I also thought we should go after the suburbanites driving in and buying the services. As long as you have cars cruising up and down the street either looking to pay for sex or pay for drugs you are going to have somebody standing on the corner selling it. So I was trying to drive down the demand. But that had nothing to do with the LGBT community.

Q: So fines from cars impounded as a result of the Bag-a-Fag were not part of that?
A: Absolutely not. What happened at Rouge was a month after Bennie Napoleon left as police chief the new, interim police chief called me. He said, 'We have a practice that I am really troubled about. I want you to come and look at what we are doing.' And what they were doing was essentially putting male officers out there soliciting individuals and then when the individuals would respond they would arrest them. And the new chief said 'I'm very uncomfortable with the practice.' And I put out a memo shortly after that, and it turned out the Wayne County Sheriff Dept. was doing the same thing in Hines Park and so were some of the other police chiefs. I brought all the police chiefs in and said, 'Look – you would not send an undercover female officer into a sports bar to solicit men. Of course not – that's ridiculous. So you can't send an undercover male officer into the park to solicit either.' And the interesting thing was that a great majority of the chiefs called me and thanked me because I gave them clear direction that said if you come upon lewd activity going on in the park or in a car you should make the arrest. But you cannot go and initiate the contact and then arrest people for responding. I think today – now we're 15 years later – no one would question the fact that was the correct thing to do. But at the time I took a fair amount of heat for doing it – but it was the right thing to do.

Q: Do you publicly support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act?
A: Sure. I don't know how much you know about me, but my wife, Lori, and I will celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary next week. But when we started dating, her sister Patty was with her partner, Lois, and they are still together today. Patty and Lois were openly in a committed relationship and from the time I came into the family they have been the in-laws. If you talk to them, Lois refers to herself as my sister-in-law and I refer to her as my sister-in-law.
My kids growing up would go to Uncle Vince and Aunt Megan one weekend and Aunt Patty and Aunt Lois' house the next. It's just the way they were raised. They got to be about nine or 10 years of age and they came home and said, 'Kids at school say I'm supposed to have an aunt and an uncle.' And I'd sit down and have a conversation and say that people who love each other can have lots of different kinds of families. I asked them if they were uncomfortable at Aunt Patty and Aunt Lois' house and they said, 'Oh no – we love it there.' So I said you need to tell your friends that people who love each other don't always have to be an aunt and an uncle.
You talk to my kids today and they think any kind of discrimination is absurd because it is what they grew up with. It was just normal at the family gatherings that three of the couples were male/female and the fourth was female/female. It's a part of the family and it's natural. The things you are asking me are the same things that we've talked about at the family table. They are both activists in the Ypsilanti community and were active in the ordinance fight a few years back.

Q: According to a study by the Office of National AIDS Policy, at current infection and transmission trends, when 20 year old black, gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men reaches age 50, half of them will be infected, and 70 percent of black MSM will be infected. BTL has condemned the public health response, claiming that health policy leaders have no compunction about ignoring black MSM and allowing this epidemic to decimate a generation. Would you be willing to publicly declare a war on HIV and support – with funding – more HIV prevention programs that target black MSM?
A: I will support public health to the maximum extent possible, so the answer is yes. At the DMC we ran a special HIV clinic. It was something the DMC supported deeply and believed in deeply when I was the CEO. And so within the public health department Рwhich Bing has eliminated, but that I intend to bring back…

Q: You do?
A: Oh yeah. Privitizing the city's public health department I think was a terrible mistake. So I will bring it back and put professional public health administrators in charge. But I do not know a single public health administrator that doesn't take HIV as a central charge in the mission. So the answer is yes – it will be important. Now, what will be the exact step? – I can't tell you but I am going to put professional public health people in charge and we will respond appropriately.

Q: What we are looking for is visible, vocal leadership. Black gay men have been treated by some as an expendable population.
A: Well there are a whole lot of them in my campaign and they don't have any trouble advocating around here. It will be an important part of the health department and we will reinstate the health department so we can garner the resources to fight it.

Q: Any final comments?
A: We are going to have a city where everybody is equally valued, and obviously my candidacy is a testament to the fact that the people in this city want change and people want a city where everyone is valued. That's going to apply to the LGBT community just as it applies to black, brown, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. We are going to build a city where everyone is going to be equally valued – something I talk about at every single event and something the vast majority of the city is behind.