America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors
By POLITICO MAGAZINE
(And 7 rising stars.)
At a time when one yellow-haired, Twitter-happy personality dominates American discourse, it’s easy to forget how much political energy—and important new thinking—emanates not from the nation’s capital but from city hall. We surveyed dozens of national and local political junkies, and came up with 11 leaders who are compelling for the fights they are waging, their personal backstories and how they are transforming their cities, often without Washington. Plus: Seven more to watch.
Eric Garcetti | Los Angeles, California
The mayor who would be president
By Edward-Isaac Dovere
Back in 1984, when he was mayor of San Antonio and a rising star in the Democratic Party, Henry Cisneros got a final-round interview to be Walter Mondale’s presidential running mate. Mondale decided against it: It was a little too much for a local official to make the leap right onto the national stage.
It’s early still, but many top Democrats have started assuming Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will skip that step entirely and run for president himself in 2020. Garcetti has helped fan that speculation, already talking to strategists and big donors about the prospect. And it helps that, as cities step up their resistance to President Donald Trump, Garcetti has been able to jump into the national debate on issues like immigration, health care and infrastructure.
“My main job, and my overwhelming job, starts with my family, my street, my neighborhood and my city,” Garcetti told Politico’s Off Message podcast in May. “But I’m playing too much defense in my backyard to not get involved in the national discussion.”
If Garcetti runs for president, he wouldn’t just make history as a rare sitting mayor to do so. He also has the potential to be the first Hispanic and the first Jewish president. Garcetti is the 46-year-old grandson of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, and the son of a former L.A. district attorney—Gil Garcetti, of O.J. Simpson trial fame—and a mother whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. The mayor can order his bagel and lox, which he loves, in fluent Spanish. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, and likes to tell stories about the time in high school when he traveled to Ethiopia to deliver medical supplies.
As mayor, Garcetti has successfully pushed for tax increases to fund a mass transit plan and more housing for the homeless, and he won a second term this year with 81 percent of the vote. His big project over the next few months is landing the Olympic Games in 2024 or 2028. The choice is expected in September, and Garcetti is putting off any decision about his political future until after that. There’s an open governor’s race in California next year, but people close to Garcetti don’t think that’s where his heart is, especially if he can go straight to a White House run. There’s also the chance of an open Senate seat if Dianne Feinstein retires, but that job doesn’t seem to fit Garcetti’s personality or his experience being the man in charge.
In the meantime, the mayor is firing back hard at Trump, at appearances all over the country, telling people to channel their rage into action—even if he’s also taking a cue from Trump’s “outsider” playbook. Gone are “the old rules of who can run and who should be president or vice president—and that reflects the American people’s desires,” Garcetti says. “They’re not looking for résumé-builders. They’re not looking for a set pathway or a set demographic or a set caricature. They want to go with their gut about somebody who they think has the guts to shake it up.”
Edward-Isaac Dovere is chief Washington correspondent at Politico.
Hillary Schieve | Reno, Nevada
By Megan Messerly
Tucked in the desert just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Reno is best known for its casinos, lax divorce laws and “Reno 911!” But these days it’s also becoming a hub for tech entrepreneurs and companies, pulling coders and data analysts from far more expensive Silicon Valley four hours to the west.
The woman now at the center of this transformation is Hillary Schieve, a 46-year-old political outsider who has her own remarkable transformation story. As a teenager, she was a figure skater elite enough to train with an Olympic-level coach. But she struggled for years before discovering that the fatigue she experienced was brought on by a serious kidney disease. Two years after a transplant—her sister was the donor—Schieve, then 27, was working in the Bay Area when her mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm and fell into a coma. Schieve put her life on hold again, moving home to Reno to care for her mother and become the family’s breadwinner. She had briefly attended Arizona State University, but never returned to college.
After working a few different jobs, the former figure skater without a college degree reinvented herself in 2007 as a small-business owner, opening a secondhand clothing store serving teenagers in a rundown part of the city. That’s where Schieve’s transformation story meets Reno’s. She shot a low-budget commercial to promote the area and lobbied the city to recognize it as a distinct district, now known as Midtown. Today, Midtown is a bustling center with wine bars, breweries, gastropubs and shops.
Schieve never pictured herself in politics. But her personal setbacks gave her a powerful sense of gratitude—“It makes you connect better with others, and I think it’s important really to honestly have a lot of compassion in your life,” she says now—and her work in Midtown convinced her that small-business interests needed a voice on the City Council. In 2014, after two years as a council member, she entered, and won, Reno’s first competitive mayoral race in more than a decade.
As mayor, Schieve hasn’t been immune to challenges. Even as Reno’s economy has boomed and the city’s population has grown by some 20,000 since 2010, it has struggled to promote affordable housing and mental health services, or to fight homelessness—issues Schieve says she is trying to address. In an age of intense partisanship, however, she stands out not just for her up-by-the-bootstraps MO, but because she’s a registered nonpartisan in a purple state, fiscally conservative and socially liberal. A wall in her office is covered in chalkboard material with a to-do list that ranges from cleaning up the blighted downtown to bringing back a gay rodeo that started in Reno in the 1970s. “Everyone likes the taste of beer, right?” Schieve says. “So don’t tell me we can’t find something in common.”
Megan Messerly is a political reporter at the Nevada Independent.
Kevin Faulconer | San Diego, California
The modern GOP executive
By Ethan Epstein
Of America’s 10 largest cities, only one has a Republican chief executive: San Diego, where Mayor Kevin Faulconer is straddling ideological and partisan lines to surprisingly popular effect.
Faulconer became mayor in this border city of 1.4 million during troubled times, after a sexual harassment scandal ousted Democrat Bob Filner. A pension scheme for city employees was also bleeding the budget dry, leading to cutbacks in basic services like library hours and funding for beaches and parks. A city council member at the time, Faulconer campaigned in English and Spanish, pledging to right the city’s financial ship, and easily won a special election.
He has made good on that pledge as mayor, pushing a high-profile legal case that let the city switch new municipal hires from its costly pension system to a 401(k)-style retirement plan. Library hours have been restored, too.
Faulconer has struggled at times with the Democratic city council, which overrode his veto of a bill to raise the minimum wage and provide private-sector workers with guaranteed paid sick days. But given San Diego’s Democratic majority, it’s not surprising that Faulconer, 50, has bucked his own party on several major issues. He speaks often of the city’s integration with its neighbor to the south, saying he views San Diego-Tijuana as “one megaregion,” and pledging that local police officers will not be used to enforce federal immigration laws. He also backed a 2015 plan to curtail San Diego’s emissions, and he has flown a gay pride flag at City Hall. “He approaches things from a pragmatic point of view and doesn’t publicly project his ideology,” says James R. Riffel, a longtime San Diego journalist.
For the most part, Faulconer’s policies have proved popular—he was reelected easily last year—perhaps because, unlike many national Republicans, he tries to eschew ideological labels. He’s quick to say he’s not a liberal. “Fiscal responsibility is a core Republican value,” he points out. But he has no qualms admitting that his conservatism differs from that of the national GOP—not to mention a certain denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“San Diego is not Washington, D.C., and I’ve done what I can to keep it that way,” Faulconer says. “My approach has always been to keep partisan politics out of governing and focus on what matters most: protecting taxpayers and getting things done for our residents.”
Ethan Epstein is associate editor at the Weekly Standard.
Greg Fischer | Louisville, Kentucky
The data geek
By Katelyn Fossett
At a 2013 conference in San Francisco, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced a new policy in which all his city’s records would be publicly available by default, and delivered a line that married the folksy simplicity of a political slogan with the message of a numbers geek: “It’s data, man.”
Fast-forward nearly four years, and Fischer has carved out just that reputation, defining his tenure in Louisville with high-tech and open-data initiatives that have cut costs and improved public health, as the city has added tens of thousands of jobs. In 2011, shortly after taking office, he named a city “innovation czar.” One result: a partnership with a company that vacuums up data from individual asthma inhalers so health agencies know what really triggers attacks. Fischer also launched LouieStat, a metrics system that in 2012 helped identify problems across municipal agencies—like the cause of 300 monthly inaccuracies in the fingerprinting process at city jails. It was improper staff training, not anything as tricky as software, and after the training was revamped, the number of inaccuracies came down to just 10 in following years.
Fischer, 59, is a Democrat, but in a deep-red state his track record fulfills the most fashionable of Republican beliefs: that a businessman, even with virtually no political experience, can deliver common-sense reforms. A Louisville native, he invented a beverage and ice dispenser and ran the company that made it; later, he started a private investment firm and Louisville’s first business accelerator. His previous life in politics was a single Senate primary, which he lost.
Fischer, who peppers his speech with corporate-sounding phrases like “de-optimizing potential,” entered politics with the same goal he had in business—to “serve as a platform for human potential to flourish.” Although he recognizes that business skills don’t always translate to politics, at a time of sky-high institutional distrust of government, he believes that cities are the best ticket toward earning back public trust, particularly with the help of data and crowd-sourcing. “It emphasizes to people we’re all interconnected,” Fischer says.
Katelyn Fossett is associate editor at Politico Magazine.
Marty Walsh | Boston, Massachusetts
The union hall progressive
By Lauren Dezenski
Even his fans would concede that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh isn’t usually the most dynamic speaker. But his anger was on full display at a news conference in January. Flanked by dozens of city officials and aides, Walsh railed against Donald Trump’s new travel ban and anti-immigrant rhetoric as “a direct attack on Boston’s people.” Then, he went a step further, offering to house inside City Hall any undocumented immigrants who felt vulnerable.
The picture was striking: A white, blue-collar former union leader from Dorchester, the image of the Irish old guard in a city with troubled race relations, taking one of the most progressive stances on immigration—and making one of the fiercest critiques of the president—of any mayor in the country.
“It was personal,” Walsh, the child of Irish immigrants, said in a recent interview. “I have the opportunity to speak up, to speak against someone. I’m not afraid, and I don’t like bullies.”
A recovering alcoholic and survivor of childhood cancer, Walsh, 50, has always bridged two worlds: the hard-bitten and socially conservative landscape of Boston’s longtime white residents, and contemporary progressive Massachusetts politics. He got his start as the head of a local labor union—one his uncle had run, and for which Walsh had hauled building materials for two years. As a state representative, he was an early advocate for marriage equality. As mayor, an office he has held since 2014, Walsh recently hoisted the transgender flag over Boston’s City Hall Plaza as an anti-transgender “free speech bus” rolled into town.
Walsh admits that “to see a mayor from a blue-collar neighborhood [supporting] transgender rights, progressive policies—it’s a bit of a disconnect.” When he has spoken to union members about social issues, he says, “Sometimes people would look at me [like] I’m crazy.” And for those who object, he says: “What frustrates me about working-class people is: Why focus on social issues, why not just focus on work-rights issues? Be more concerned about your benefits and your health care and pension.”
Conventional wisdom says Walsh will coast to a second term in November—no incumbent mayor in Boston has lost reelection since 1949. But while he remains tight-lipped about higher aspirations, he rejects the “mayor-for-life” approach of his five-term predecessor, raising questions about his future. Last year, Walsh traveled the country supporting Hillary Clinton, and rumors swirled that he could be tapped for a labor role in Washington. But Walsh now says that he wouldn’t have accepted the job before finishing out his first term as mayor.
As for the current president, Walsh says that day to day, “I really don’t make big decisions based on Trump.” But he takes seriously the chance to stand up for Boston: “I’ll continue to do that as long as I’m mayor of the city, or whatever position I have. I did it as a state rep, I did it as a labor leader, I did it as a Little League coach, before I was into any of this stuff.”
Lauren Dezenski is a Politico reporter in Boston and author of Massachusetts Playbook.
Michael Hancock | Denver, Colorado
The cool-headed change agent
By Caleb Hannan
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock did something he almost never does: He left work early. He had stumped for Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama before her, and was so shocked by Trump’s win that he left shortly after lunch, only the second time he had done so in more than five years in office.
“I had to breathe a little bit and collect my thoughts,” he recalled recently.
Hancock hasn’t skipped a day since. Coming to grips with the shock of a Trump presidency didn’t take him long, a calm response befitting a low-key leader who has moved beyond his turbulent past and faces daily the growing pains associated with a boom city.
Being mayor has been Hancock’s dream ever since he decided, at age 15, that he wanted to be the first African American to lead Denver, whose population is only about 10 percent black. (Wellington Webb would beat him to that goal in the 1990s.) And Hancock’s path was far from clear. He had the kind of childhood that can be an asset only after it has been overcome: an alcoholic father; a brother who died of AIDS; a sister who was murdered by a domestic abuser. Before getting to the mayor’s office, Hancock spent a season as the Broncos’ then-mascot, “Huddles,” two terms as a City Council member, and then defeated the son of a former governor in his first mayor’s race in 2011. When he ran again four years later, he was virtually unopposed.
Perhaps because Hancock, 47, already has his dream job—he’s begun raising money for a second reelection campaign—he wields his powerful personal story with some subtlety. This spring, he created a new office designed to improve affordable housing options for low-income residents without dwelling on the fact that he and his nine siblings were often homeless.
That deft touch has come in handy as Denver has navigated hot-button issues like marijuana legalization. Hancock opposed the amendment that made weed legal in Colorado but worked hard to smooth the transition once voters overruled him.
Because of its progressive stances on a number of issues, Denver also holds, perhaps even more so than other cities, the potential for conflict with the Trump administration. But Hancock has navigated the new national politics with his signature understatement. A week after the election, he posted a two-minute video on his YouTube page meant to reassure Denver residents, but never mentioned Trump’s name.
Then, when the president issued an executive order threatening to withhold federal funds for so-called sanctuary cities, Hancock once again reacted without being reactionary. His response was to spend months lobbying to change local laws, rather than making confrontational speeches. And this spring, in a move that earned applause from the Denver Post, Hancock signed a series of sentencing reforms that reduce penalties for low-level violations in the city—minor crimes that in the past would have set off alarms at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and possibly resulted in deportation.
“It’s easy to be emotional ... and to do things because it looks good politically,” Hancock says. “But if you’re not doing things that are going to protect and help your residents, then what’s the point?”
Caleb Hannan is a writer in Denver.
Jennifer Roberts | Charlotte, North Carolina
The embattled activist
By Greg Lacour
If there’s an embodiment of a mayor whose political challenges have taken on national import, it’s Jennifer Roberts.
The Charlotte mayor, a Democrat, flashed onto the national radar by facing down the Republican state legislature over House Bill 2, the 2016 state law that overturned a city ordinance protecting gay and transgender people. On September 19, having rejected a proposed deal to repeal the ordinance in exchange for possible repeal of HB2, Roberts walked into a City Council meeting to a powerful round of applause from members of the local LGBTQ community.
One week later, she returned to the chamber for another council meeting and faced a crowd with a very different message.
“Shut your goddamn mouth.”
“You should not be in office at all.”
“Fuck all y’all.”
The speakers were members of Charlotte’s black community, infuriated and terrified after the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott, a black man, on September 20. Roberts seemed at a loss. The night after the Scott shooting, she waited until a riot at the center of the city had left a man dead before signing a state of emergency proclamation that allowed the governor to send in the National Guard. She urged patience with the investigation, then wrote an op-ed criticizing the police department for not immediately releasing footage of the incident.
A former diplomat, Roberts, 57, was elected in 2015 with broad backing among disparate constituencies. But her ironclad support for the nondiscrimination ordinance and missteps after the Scott shooting have turned her, improbably, into a polarizing figure as she seeks reelection this year. She is struggling to manage HB2’s economic damage and a hostile legislature that blames her for it, and a perception among some in the black community that she will work for their votes but not their well-being. Roberts has two challengers in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary, both of whom are African-American, and in May, a local Black Political Caucus internal caucus vote placed her a distant third—although a poll in late June showed her leading both of her primary challengers.
“Mayor Roberts does not have a consistent application of attentiveness with the African-American community and the Black Political Caucus like she does with the LGBTQ community,” says caucus Chair Colette Forrest. “We as African Americans have not seen that consistency on our issues, such as housing, crime and safety, economic development and transportation.”
Roberts says, with justification, that she has urged city action on all of those issues. But many Charlotteans, she says, fail to grasp how little formal power she has as mayor, since the city council sets policy in Charlotte and the city manager handles day-to-day operations. “I can’t really legislate or govern,” Roberts says—which puts all the more pressure on what she says and how she acts in the face of both local and state-level opposition.
“I don’t really think of myself as a politician. I’m an advocate,” Roberts says. “The civil rights movement needed white people. The LGBT community needs straight people. I want to be there when people are fighting for equality.”
Greg Lacour is a writer in Charlotte and contributing editor at Charlotte Magazine.
Tomás Regalado | Miami, Florida
The Republican resister
By Marc Caputo
The Argentinian real estate investor had a question that Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado hated hearing. “I’m investing in Miami. But I want to ask you if I should be concerned that I would never be able to go. … All these Trump laws could impede me and my family.”
This was one of the mayor’s fears during the 2016 election—that Donald Trump’s rhetoric could spook the foreign investors who are essential to Miami’s booming economy. Miami is both a big U.S. city and Latin America’s northernmost metropolis, and keeping its status as the latter requires Regalado to calm the nerves of jittery investors up and down the hemisphere.
Few major U.S. cities have as many reasons to fret about a Trump presidency. It’s not just that Miami has one of the country’s highest proportions of foreign-born residents and relies heavily on foreign investment. It is also among the cities most threatened by rising sea levels, at a time when Trump has labeled climate change a hoax and is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.
That means that, at age 70, Regalado has fashioned himself as one of the most caustic voices of the so-called anti-Trump “resistance,” and from within the president’s own party—both men are Republicans.
For Regalado, opposition to Trump is almost personal. He was born overseas, in Cuba, one of the last of the old-school anti-Castro exiles who helped turn Miami into a Spanish-language mecca more culturally attuned to Havana than Fort Lauderdale. And he empathizes with the flood of immigrants and refugees, particularly from Latin America and the Caribbean, who populate Miami’s metropolitan area. At 14, Regalado was one of 14,000 Cuban children spirited off the island and settled in the United States without their parents. His father, a lawyer and journalist, was jailed by Fidel Castro for two decades.
Regalado went into journalism too, starting out in radio and local TV, before covering the White House. He traveled the world and says he was among the last foreign reporters to interview Egyptian strongman Anwar Sadat. In 1996, he parlayed his name ID into his first political bid, on the city commission, and won the first of his two mayoral terms in 2009. (His daughter is now a congressional candidate in Florida; one of his sons is running for city commission.)
Despite his calm demeanor, Regalado grows animated when discussing Trump. The administration, for instance, recently extended temporary protective status to more than 58,000 Haitians who fled the country’s 2010 earthquake—but only for six more months. “These are good people, hard-working people,” Regalado says. “Now we have this guy saying, ‘Get your things in order. You might go back.’ What the hell? What ‘things’?”
In the end, he says, it’s hard not to see racial overtones in Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies. “It reminded me of when I was a kid, and the others would tell me, ‘Spic, go home,’” he said during the campaign. “I never responded to that. But I was like, ‘Fuck this. This is my country.’”
Marc Caputo is a Politico senior reporter in Miami and author of Florida Playbook.
Jackie Biskupski | Salt Lake City, Utah
The pioneer in Mormon country
By Erick Trickey
Her parents in Minnesota named her after Jacqueline Kennedy. But Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski didn’t turn to politics until she witnessed Utah’s 1990s anti-gay backlash.
“When I first moved here, I was a ski bum and a bartender,” Biskupski recalled in an interview earlier this year. Then the Utah legislature tried to stamp out a local high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. That convinced Biskupski to run for office as an out lesbian. “By hiding, you were legitimizing the discrimination,” she says. In 1998, Biskupski was elected as Utah’s first openly gay state legislator.
If it shocks people outside Utah that Salt Lake City would have a lesbian mayor, given the state’s streak of Mormon-influenced social conservatism, it’s a source of pride to residents of the capital city, who favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 4-to-1 and haven’t elected a Republican mayor since the 1970s. Today, Biskupski, 51, governs from Salt Lake City’s towering Romanesque City Hall, built in the 1890s as a secular counterpoint to the Mormon Church’s Salt Lake Temple.
During her statehouse years, Biskupski waged a near-constant battle against anti-gay legislation. She was sworn in as mayor in 2016 with her fiancée, now wife, by her side. But while her identity helped her get elected as a progressive, it hasn’t been much help with governing: Biskupski is struggling to deliver on difficult goals such as better homeless services and affordable housing.
Salt Lake City’s growing homeless problem, fueled by the opioid epidemic and a housing shortage, has roiled local politics. A thriving drug trade has grown around The Road Home, the city’s main downtown homeless shelter, near a revitalizing neighborhood and the Rio Grande train station. In her first year as mayor, Biskupski joined with the county sheriff to launch a crackdown on drug crime near the shelter that offered the addicted a choice: jail or treatment. About half of the defendants who chose treatment have stayed with it, early results show.
But a controversy over where to move the city’s homeless services has hurt Biskupski. She came to office as the community agreed to replace The Road Home with smaller homeless centers. Under Utah law, the job of finding the sites fell to the mayor. After a year of study, Biskupski chose four sites, and not-in-my-backyard opposition broke out, especially in the middle-class Sugar House neighborhood. Forced to back down in February, Biskupski, the City Council and the county government cut the number of centers from four to three, moved one of the remaining ones outside the city and set 2019 as the deadline to close The Road Home. Critics say the mayor’s decisions weren’t transparent and were sprung on the public. Biskupski says she tried to avoid a divisive debate and find a fair way to distribute the homeless centers around the city. “We did not want to pit neighborhoods against neighborhoods,” is how she often puts it.
In February, Biskupski delivered her long-awaited affordable housing plan, “Growing SLC.” She proposed requiring developments to include affordable units, changing city zoning to allow denser development in neighborhoods full of single-family homes, and buying hotels and apartment buildings to remake them as affordable housing complexes. Her ideas got a positive reception from the City Council and local advocates, though some are pushing for quicker progress. Biskupski calls her plan “bold but equitable.” That’s a good summary of how she would like to be seen herself.
Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston.
Bill Peduto | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Rust Belt rebrander
By Blake Hounshell
When a Nashville Predators fan was arrested for throwing a dead catfish on the ice during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals in May, a home game for the Penguins, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto responded with a barrage of fish puns. “This has turned into a whale of a story,” he wrote in a news release. “We shouldn’t be baited into interfering with this fish tale, but if the charges eventually make their way to a judge I hope the predatory catfish hurler who got the hook last night is simply sentenced to community service, perhaps cleaning fish at Wholey’s.”
It was vintage Peduto, and not just because of the goofy humor: The affable Democratic mayor has a knack for inserting himself into every story about Pittsburgh, a prideful city that has aggressively rebranded itself as a metropolis of the future during his three-year tenure. A self-described “student of cities” who rose to local prominence by championing a bohemian mix of indie art galleries and urban tech centers, Peduto, 52, represents the global aspirations of a city shaking off its smoky past.
There’s no better example of his media savvy than when Peduto seized on President Donald Trump’s speech announcing his decision to withdraw from a 2015 global climate agreement. No sooner had the president said the words, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” than the mayor was pointing out on his lively Twitter feed that in fact, 80 percent of Pittsburghers had voted for Hillary Clinton. He followed it up with a media blitz positioning Pittsburgh as a leader in green technology, and co-bylined a New York Times op-ed with the mayor of Paris calling on cities to fight climate change.
The flurry of positive press was good for Pittsburgh—and also good for Peduto, who has told friends he has wider ambitions. But he has kept them mostly to himself, just as he did in high school, when for months he hid from his strict, academic-minded parents that he had been elected student council president. “They loved the fact,” he later explained, “but didn’t understand why I wanted to do things like that.”
Blake Hounshell is editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine.
Dan Gilbert* | Detroit, Michigan
The shadow mayor
By Nancy Kaffer
Walk the streets of downtown Detroit, and Dan Gilbert is everywhere. The headquarters of his online mortgage firm, Quicken Loans, looms over the park at downtown Detroit’s center—thronged with Gilbert’s employees, eating at restaurants in Gilbert-owned buildings, traveling to Midtown on the QLine, a light rail line championed and partially funded by Gilbert, all under the watchful eye of a network of security guards and cameras installed and paid for by Gilbert.
Gilbert, 55, is not actually the mayor of Detroit, and in most of the city’s sprawling 140-odd square miles, his influence is negligible. But in the city’s now-thriving downtown—Gilbertville, some call it—this billionaire businessman wields the kind of power and boasts a résumé of civic accomplishment that most politicians could only dream of.
At a time of dire need for Detroit, what he has done is remarkable. But for some Detroiters, that doesn’t sit well: Because Gilbert isn’t an elected official, he has no public accountability.
In many ways, Detroit was ripe for Gilbert’s intervention. It had lost nearly two-thirds of its population since 1950; during the recession, it watched the implosion of the administration of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now serving time on federal corruption charges. The city declared bankruptcy in 2013.
Gilbert grew up just outside Detroit and originally built his mortgage empire in the suburbs. He announced the move downtown in 2007, hoping it would be “transformational,” and city and state officials applauded him. Quicken moved downtown in 2010. Today Gilbert owns more than 95 buildings there, and 4,000 of his workers have flooded the area. Many have also bought homes in Detroit with down-payment assistance offered by Quicken and other businesses. (Separately, the Justice Department is suing Quicken for improper underwriting of hundreds of Federal Housing Authority-insured mortgages during and after the recession. Gilbert vigorously denies those claims; he was not available for an interview for this article.) Dozens of businesses have opened to serve the influx of workers.
But not everyone is convinced what’s best for Gilbert is what’s best for the city. His security force, for example, isn’t required to release the same data as public police departments. And while Gilbert has brought thousands of workers downtown, they’re mostly suburban white transplants. The majority-black neighborhoods where most Detroiters live still languish. “It’s the feeling of, ‘Is it still our city? Are we still included?’” says Keith Owens of the Michigan Chronicle, a newspaper that serves Detroit’s African-American community.
Detroit has a real mayor, of course—Mike Duggan, elected in 2013 as the city’s first white executive since 1974—who has partnered with Gilbert on some projects. Duggan is perhaps more attuned to the contours of the city. The mayor—who has demolished thousands of blighted houses, among other initiatives—has ensured that razed land gets community input as it is redeveloped. (His press secretary did not respond to a request for comment about Gilbert’s work downtown.) Unlike Duggan’s, Gilbert’s job isn’t intrinsically tied to the city of Detroit, since Quicken is an online business. And that has prompted questions about what would happen if the billionaire—who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and has other investments in the Ohio city—ever left Detroit.
“That’s been my biggest worry about Detroit’s momentum,” says Tom Walsh, a retired Detroit Free Press business columnist who covered Gilbert for more than a decade, “that it has relied on a small group of people.”
Nancy Kaffer is a political columnist and member of the editorial board at the Detroit Free Press.