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Interview: A Young, Black Detroiter Is Set To Derail the ALEC-Inspired Agenda of Michigan’s Millionaire Governor

Brandon Jessup is young, black and lives in Detroit. Newspapers and magazines all around the country that trumpet bad news generated by statistical analyses and studies about the city will tell you that Brandon Jessup should be unemployed, dead or have decamped to the ‘burbs for a better, safer, cleaner and more profitable life.

Instead, Brandon Jessup is young, black, lives in Detroit and is the founder of a politically progressive think tank called Michigan Forward. In a 2010 interview with the online news site IAMYOUNGDETROIT.com, Jessup said: “Our vision is to build a policy environment in Michigan that recognizes the dynamic, heterogeneous make-up of the urban center as a valuable commodity in the creation and implementation of public policy.”

He graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 2005 with a degree in Computer Information Systems and Labor Studies. Five years later, he was tapped to serve on the Detroit Public Schools transition team.

While the Committee to Recall Rick Snyder (reorganized in November 2011 as Michigan Rising) stumbled in its efforts to collect enough signatures to put the question to the state’s voters of whether the unpopular Republican governor should be recalled, Michigan Forward recently announced that the group had collected enough signatures (more than 170,000 as of January 2012) to put the question to the voters of Michigan of whether Public Act 4 (the so-called Emergency Manager law) should be repealed.

The signatures must still be certified by county officials. After that, Jessup expects Michigan voters to make a decision one way or the other about Public Act 4 in November 2012. A2Politico recently posted a piece about a survey that revealed Michigan’s white voters are not so sure the law needs to go, and college-educated voters favor keeping the law in place. Conversely, Black voters and those with just high school diplomas favor jettisoning the law by an overwhelming majority.

In an interview with MichiganPolicyNetwork.com in December 2011, Jessup explained one important reason he believes Public Act 4 needs to be overhauled:

“I think the powers that the State Treasurer should have is, well first of all, the State Treasurer should open up a bureau to handle these types of instances.  The treasurer should open up some type of other means and mechanisms out of his office to handle these types of things.   Right now the person that’s in charge of righting the ship in these local communities created a half a billion dollar structural deficit in the City of Ann Arbor.  His name is Mr. Fraser, the deputy treasurer, who’s in charge of appointing emergency managers and overseeing that entire process, created a deficit inAnn Arbor himself.   What I would like to see is a Treasurers’ office that actually could really suit up with the proper employees with the capacity to oversee some of the purchasing agreements of these communities, to look at where some of these can be restructured, to look at the long-standing debt of these local communities – like the City of Detroit has a 10 billion dollar long term debt that we have to handle.   We can’t do that by cutting jobs, we have to do that by generating revenue.”

Jessup is referring to information revealed in an investigative piece by A2Politico. However, Brandon Jessup’s idea that cities in financial crisis should focus on increasing revenues, as opposed to outsourcing jobs and slashing public spending, is an idea that merits serious discussion.

A2Politico caught up with Brandon Jessup via email.

A2P: Would you start off this interview detailing your experience in our state’s largest city, Detroit? Specifically, what highlights and/or positive aspects of Detroit, Michigan residents enjoy on a regular basis, that those who don’t live in the wouldn’t have knowledge about?

Brandon Jessup (right): Detroit is a city where a lot of good things happen. When our stereotypes ends with a concept of crime, violence and decay  the good actions seem far fetched. If you follow the city’s news our private sector is growing with the addition of Quicken Loans and the revival of Michigan manufacturing. Detroit’s young people, college graduates and young business professionals are ready for community leadership and we’re doing it almost everyway possible. We have young entrepreneurs such as Phil Cooley, owner of Slow’s BBQ and philanthropist. Detroit Parent Network is leading a magnificent amount of change here in education; bringing parents, resources and Detroit’s schools together for a stronger education system. There’s a type of activism going on down here that’s building a new economy in the city, a robust, diverse one not centered around a handful of large companies.

A2P: Detroit has had its share of ups and downs with the economy. Other cities in the Southeastern Michigan community experienced similar difficulties. Why do you believe is Detroit singled out for its fiscal struggles but, in general more suburban areas are not?

Brandon Jessup: First I want to say , there’s a responsibility that comes with being the state’s largest city and population, the state’s eye is constantly on the city of Detroit. We’re the state’s largest and in many cases the state’s major media market. So when Detroit makes a mistake, everyone knows. The amount of attention Detroit receives politically, socially and in popular culture shows how important and our influence on the region. We need to be more conscientious of that when we elect our local representatives.

Detroit isn’t singled out, often it stands alone in its viewpoint and experience, the largest community comparable to the city of Detroit is the city of Warren. Detroit, with as much population loss as its had in the past decade, still has three times the residents as its Macomb county neighbor. Politics in the area have changed many public assets in Detroit are a regional responsibility. We must work closer with the communities that surround us and we need more receptive suburban neighbors in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. We need better community relations within the city and between communities.

A2P: The national financial crisis according to economists, started in 2007. Detroit residents began to feel impacts fiscal issues that would sweep across the U.S. two years prior, in 2005. It appears leadership in State Government focus a “laser-light” on Detroit as example of where communities shouldn’t strive to be? Do you believe this is fair or not, and why?

Brandon Jessup: I think state government is where most stereotypes about Detroit and urban areas play out the loudest. Its not fair, but fairness doesn’t come easily in reality. So its not a matter of what’s fair, its about what’s right and just. The most powerful tool we have in America isn’t the gun, it’s law. Our housing market is still declining here in the city because our State Government fails to act on behalf of consumers and homeowners. Billions of dollars have been poured into Michigan’s housing market, yet housing values continue to fall in Detroit. As our State Government makes sweeping cuts to education, sending pink slips to thousands of educators and closing schools the impact is felt largest here in Detroit. As this State Government continues to lower wages and raise taxes on Michigan’s working and middle class, the impact is felt largest here in Detroit. Both these actions encourage divestment from the nation’s largest financial institutions, makes our community less attractive to the free market. These actions are not fair, right or just our State Government is denying residents from realizing the American dream here.

A2P: Media resources continually point to crime and violence in Detroit but, underreport these statistics in other areas. Do you believe this might be intentional with presenting Detroit as a violent city that “needs saving” or are factual incorrect?

Brandon Jessup: Detroit’s crime statistics are more dramatic, they are also more easier to understand and unfortunately it’s a larger news story than the crime statistics in Chicago or Flint. It’s bad here in Detroit. A lot of qualified, employable adults are here jobless. Their wages may have stopped, but  their bills haven’t. Some people are turning to crime to find their way through the day. Detroit doesn’t need Superman, I know that’s the type of saving that comes to mind. The city isn’t overrun with criminals and villains. It’s overrun with depression, divestment and exclusion.

A2P: Detroit could be on the brink an Emergency Manager appointed to control all city Government manners and affairs. If this occurs, residents’ voices to have their grievances addressed by local leaders elected could be eliminated, as an Emergency Manager is accountable to Governor Rick Snyder and Treasurer Andy Dillon. Do you believe if the state takes over city operations, the action would improve relations between Detroit’s residents, state Governmental leaders or an appointed Emergency Manager?

Brandon Jessup: No, the appointment of an Emergency Manager will not improve relations between Detroit residents. Emergency Management is a process designed to pay a municipality’s largest creditors.

A2P: During former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration, Detroit received a series of “empowerment zones” to focus on redevelopment, creating employment opportunities and promote positive aspects of the city. Would a return to “empowerment zones” improve the long-term financial outlook for Detroit? What other ideas you, with your experience, believe could assist Detroit communities?

Brandon Jessup: The entire city needs empowerment, empowerment zones work well in communities with tax bases that haven’t been highly leveraged. Detroit homeowners pay some of the highest taxes in the state, so we’d have to find a way to fund a investment without raising taxes. The most unattractive element in Detroit’s economy is how over leveraged the community is. One third of the community’s eligible workforce funds one-hundred percent of the city’s services. Empowerment zones are a start but the city needs to reform its tax system. The same can be found in other post-manufacturing cities in Michigan. This is where the state and local governments can work together on reforming revenue sharing, we’ll be introducing suggestions here at Michigan Forward.

A2P: Media reports about how if Detroit -Michigan’s largest city with a high minority population- receives a Emergency Manager under Public Act #4, over 50% of minorities statewide would lose localized elected representation. Do you believe this action could impact election voting affairs’, equal representation Detroit residents’ concerns in Lansing or Washington, D.C. or empathize communities with minority population can’t manage effectively to operate local government affairs without state assistance?

Brandon Jessup: Voter disenfranchisement is in the DNA of Michigan’s Emergency Manager policy.  Public Act 4 disenfranchises through disengagement, from beginning to end. Emergency Managers are not accountable to the public, they are political appointees with absolute authority. In Flint, Pontiac and Benton Harbor each community’s legislative body are silenced this is the ultimate in voter disenfranchisement. Pontiac’s emergency manager fired the city clerk, days before an election to insert his own appointee. Our local clerks administer our local, state and national elections. If Emergency Managers can fire elected officials at will, especially election officials the vote is no longer safe in Michigan. Here is where Michigan’s Public Act 4 functions as a poll tax against financially strapped communities.

A2P: If an Emergency Manager is appointed,  privatization of public assets like the Detroit Water Department -which services nearly all of Southeastern Michigan-Belle Isle, Museums, Libraries,  city owned land or properly could be lost to Detroit citizens who paid tax dollars for decades to maintain these domains. Do you feel, the citizens of Detroit would agree that a Emergency Manager appointed by Public Act #4 should have rights to sell public works, land or properties to the highest privatized bidder?

No, Detroiters have fought against the sell of public assets in the past and symbolize that sentiment in our petition to repeal Public Act 4.

A2P: Let’s briefly touch on Detroit Public Schools (DPS). As you know, former Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bob was brought in by the Granholm administration to boost enrollment rates, increase standardized test scores and stabilize financial reporting for DPS. After the Robert Bob’s contract ended, Gov. Snyder appointed Roy Roberts to as Emergency Manager position under Public Act #4. For the last four years, DPS has been under some form of “Emergency Management”. In your discussions with DPS parents, has state control of their school system worked to improve academic and financial management areas promised by state authorizes?

Brandon Jessup: In my discussion with many in the DPS community, there’s little change in Detroit education environment overall, regardless is the school is DPS or charter. The education industry is failing here in Detroit and everyone Is accountable. Roy Roberts applauds approx 70,000 enrolling students 2011-12 when the “demand” for education or the number of school aged children in Detroit is over 100,000. Enrollment plans should focus on capturing more market share, not maintaining it. Emergency Managements largest failure to date is Detroit Public Schools, which now has a $327 million deficit.

A2P: In closing, what in your opinion as a community leader in Detroit, what’s needed to return our Michigan’s largest city back into the jewel city residents desire it to be?

Brandon Jessup: The new city charter provides a good foundation on right sizing Detroit and getting our local government back on track. The city’s financial house has to get in order and that takes Michigan’s state government working in partnership with Detroit to identify a new system of revenue sharing. Priority is diversifying our economy. That means the financial industry must embrace Detroit with open arms to invest in our small businesses, stabilize our housing values and providing assess to capital for entrepreneurs. 

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1 Comment for “Interview: A Young, Black Detroiter Is Set To Derail the ALEC-Inspired Agenda of Michigan’s Millionaire Governor”

  1. Brandon Jessup should be governor.

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