Exclusive Interview: Author, Lawyer & Former Detroit Mayor DENNIS ARCHER on his memoir ‘Let the Future Begin’!
“Ding!” the elevator door opens. I step inside. Whoosh! The marble-paneled elevator cruises fast up to the 40th floor of Ally Detroit Center, tallest office building in the State of Michigan and the 2nd tallest building in Detroit.
I spill out onto the 40th floor, immediately enraptured by the fantastic vantage of Detroit’s cityscape, including spectacular views of the Guardian Building, Detroit’s main US Post Office and the Ambassador Bridge.
619 feet tall. 43 floors. I’m almost at the very top of the building, here inside the world headquarters of the Dickinson Wright law firm where Dennis Archer is Chairman Emeritus.
Dickinson Wright has 450 lawyers in over 20 offices in the United States, helping people in 40 different areas of law.
I’m here discussing Mr. Archer’s new memoir, ‘Let The Future Begin’.
The title is based on the slogan his mayoral campaign manager, David Axelrod, created for him. Axelrod later became President Obama’s chief strategist, senior advisor and CNN commentator.
Mr. Archer’s memoir is a fascinating, thorough and riveting account of his incredible life and career.
Sitting here now with me, Dennis is soft spoken, careful, measured, brilliant, a natural tactician and we have an absorbing 2.5-hour long conversation, going well beyond the initial 45 minutes we originally intended.
Dennis is a patient listener and thoughtful conversationist. Listening to people, rather than telling them what they want, has always been his leadership style.
Archer was a popular Mayor because he was perceived by most people, regardless of political affiliation, as someone who truly cares about the city of Detroit and its residents. Speaking with him, you can tell his concern is sincere and genuine and not some contrived act for the cameras.
Widely admired for his strong moral philosophy, Archer has spent his life relentlessly focused on the value of education and encouraging people to learn as much and as often as they can to help improve their lives and communities.
Having attended Wayne State University, Western Michigan University and Detroit College of Law, Dennis Archer went on to become:
A husband, father, teacher, Michigan Supreme Court Justice, partner at Dickinson Wright law firm, two-term Mayor of the City of Detroit, the first African American president of the Michigan Bar Association and of the 400,000-member American Bar Association, president of the National League of Cities and creator of the Dennis W. Archer Foundation, where he’s given out $1.5 million dollars in scholarships to students.
Dennis Archer is a hard-working, dedicated, no-nonsense, man of action and this is his tale.
Born New Year’s Day 1942 at Rogers Hospital in Detroit, Dennis Archer lived here until 1947, when he moved to Cassopolis, a rural village in Southwest Michigan.
Dennis grew up poor in a house with an outhouse and he bathed in a big metal tub every Saturday night.
His father’s family was from North Carolina and Logan County, Ohio and he had one arm, a 3rd grade education and was an extremely hard worker. His mother’s family was from Virginia and both were very influential in Dennis’ life.
Cassopolis was small town USA. Cat litter was invented here in 1947 by resident Ed Lowe. Dennis grew up here listening to doo wop, caddying & golfing and working at the local pickle factory. In 1959, he moved back to Detroit after high school graduation and enrolled at Wayne State University.
He was a drummer in the school marching band when they played for President JFK in Washington, D.C. in 1961. Two years later, Dennis marched with 125,000 people led by Martin Luther King Jr. down Woodward Avenue in Downtown Detroit when he gave his first ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963.
Dennis eventually transferred from Wayne State to Western Michigan University to become a teacher. He graduated and returned to Detroit where he met fellow teacher and future wife Trudy DunCombe, an EMU grad, in 1965.
After that, he enrolled in the Detroit College of Law, got married and became involved in the fields of law and politics in Detroit.
“What do I like most about Detroit? Everything. I was born here. I remember my first five years on earth here. My dad sent my mother, who was pregnant with me, from Cassopolis to Detroit to be born in a hospital. Cassopolis had no hospital and our house didn’t have a telephone.”
“The first place I lived in Detroit was my Aunt Hattie’s on McDougall Street, a few blocks down from Joe Louis’ mother’s house, they lived at 2100 McDougall. Then we moved to my Grandma’s on Rivard and Lafayette in the Black Bottom neighborhood. We’d walk downtown to Kresge’s Department Store frequently. Detroit has always been a fascinating and wonderful place to me.”
Writing His Memoir
“I did not keep diary or journal but my wife kept news articles. I wrote the book after having been encouraged by a number of people who finally convinced me that it might be very helpful and enlightening to my sons and grandsons and the general public to have a record of my experiences.”
“My grandsons were 11 and 8 years old when I started writing the book in August 2015. Took me a while to figure out how best to write a book without a lot of emphasis on “I”. If you pass by a fencepost and happen to see a turtle sitting on top, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”
“By working with a co-author, Elizabeth Ann Atkins, she could interview the people who were a part of Detroit and my life and they could share their true feelings with her. The book was finally published in December 2017.”
People of Color
“People of color used to not be able to join the Detroit Golf Club until Coleman Young helped change that. Cardinal Szoka nominated Mayor Young and he became a Social Member in 1986, which paved the way for other people of color to join like Walt Watkins, Walt Douglas, S. Martin Taylor and myself, etc.”
The Detroit Riots
“The Rebellion of 1967 increased my motivation to be a lawyer. In Spring 1966, I started at Detroit College of Law. I taught school during the day and attended law school at night and graduated January 1970.”
“In 1967, I was a student law clerk at the firm of Damon J. Keith. I got married on June 17, 1967. My father-in-law and I liked to play golf, so I picked him up the morning of July 23rd . We were coming home, and we could see smoke in the air, hear sirens. A lot of sirens, more than usual. Distant yet deafening. I dropped him off and drove home to our apartment. That’s when Trudy told me how things had started.”
“Gov. Romney and Mayor Cavanagh asked for troops to come in. We lost 47 lives and over 7,000 people were arrested and were housed on Belle Isle.”
“Detroit Recorder’s Court judges put a call out for all lawyers to come out and help the people held in custody by explaining to them the legal process and what they were charged with. I watched Judge Keith’s firm participate in providing people legal assistance and I saw how important lawyers were in the process of protecting people’s rights and the whole experience really increased my motivation to be a lawyer.”
Being Mayor of Detroit
On January 1st, 1994, Dennis Archer became the 67th Mayor of Detroit, which at the time was America’s 8th largest city. He served two terms and ended his service on December 31st, 2001.
Dennis inherited a monumental task of revitalizing the city. He experienced:
General Motors purchasing the Renaissance Center which changed the city in a very positive way.
The Nancy Kerrigan knee bashing at Joe Louis Arena.
The creation of 3 casino’s in Detroit: MGM, Motor City and Greektown.
Allowing Detroit Electronic Music Festival (aka: DEMF, Techfest) to start in Hart Plaza. This festival continues today and is known as Movement.
The creation and flourishing of Campus Martius.
Encouraging Peter Karmanos to move his Compuware Corporation from Farmington Hills to downtown Detroit.
“Well, my motivation to run for Mayor was built up over several years and came from a broad spectrum of people who encouraged me to seriously consider running for Mayor.”
“For the longest time, I thought ‘Me run for Mayor? I’m just happy to be on the Supreme Court!’”
“I saw the businesses leaving the city, crime rate going up, city having fiscal problems, buses not running on time. People were taking 2-3 buses just to get to their jobs, which were outside the city. We’re the largest metropolitan area in the USA that did not have a rapid transit system.”
“Detroit in the 1990 U.S. Census was said to have 1,027,000 people and led the nation with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, 32.2%.”
“It was ironic that in the Motor City, 35% of our residents could not afford to own a car.”
“At its peak, 1953-54, Detroit had almost two million residents.”
“When you fast-forward to the early 1990’s and subtract over 800,000 people who were no longer living here, the same housing stock was not needed and, thus, we had many vacant homes and empty blocks.”
“Some blocks only had 1-2 houses on them and there was a lot of illegal dumping of trash and waste. Our residents didn’t have jobs. Businesses had left the city. We were having challenges with public schools. There’s was not a lot of optimism or hope here. But there was a deep yearning for change.”
“I was fortunate to be able to attract over 6,000 campaign volunteers who believed in our thoughts for a greater Detroit. I had asked the people directly what were their real problems and what did they want for their city, their children and what would make them excited? Together, we devised a plan of action.”
Inheriting a Deficit
“We had a big surprise after the election and I found out from the head of my financial transition team, Jay Alix, that the city of Detroit was anticipating an $88.5 million-dollar deficit.”
“We went to New York and met with the powerful ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. They knew every detail about the city of Detroit, it was incredible. We were at junk bond status. The city had to actually buy insurance in order to sell our bonds.”
“We brought us back up to investment-grade status.”
“When my successor Kwame Kilpatrick stepped down, Mayor Bing inherited a $315 million-dollar deficit. Governor Snyder tried working with the city of Detroit to avoid appointing an emergency manager, however, when the Consent Agreement failed, he had to appoint Kevyn Orr.”
“Kevyn ended up doing a masterful job and helped guide Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in USA history. $18 billion dollars in debt was successfully restructured and a revitalization plan was implemented.”
“Back in the 1960’s, Mayor Cavanagh had predicted unless he had help, Detroit faced bankruptcy. One of the main reasons was population decline. Revenues in the form of income tax & real estate tax were not coming in to help fund the running of the city.”
Being a Big City Mayor is Tough
“We had some very outstanding plans for the city but when you find out you’re facing a deficit and there’s no money to implement those plans, that money goes to balancing the budget.”
“We had a modest surplus, a rainy-day fund and every single year I was in office, the budget was balanced and at one point the two pension funds were overfunded. The hardest part was not being able to live up to the citizens high expectations for the city of Detroit.”
“By earning an Empowerment Zone designation, President Clinton’s urban renewal program gave us a hand up. Governor Engler’s Renaissance Zones helped us bring in new business. I convinced Vice President Al Gore to have an EZ (Empowerment Zone) meeting in Detroit. We had the most successful EZ out of all the EZ’s in the USA. The number of investments were staggering.”
“While I was in office, we were able to attract $20.2 billion dollars in new investments to the city.”
“Brenda Schneider documented the investments and number of projects that came in every year. Her findings are in the Appendix of my book.”
Dennis Helps Attract Investments to Detroit
“In 1994, we had a ballot initiative for a riverboat casino at Atwater and putting an Indian-owned casino in Greektown.”
“The casino ballot passed for Greektown and Gov. Engler appointed a commission to study casino gaming. We convinced them we could have up to 4-5 casinos in the city of Detroit. We had several proposals.”
“Even Donald Trump wanted to build a Detroit-themed Trump Casino here. Another casino mogul, Don Barden, later tried getting pop singer Michael Jackson to be a casino partner with him here. Barden eventually went to Ohio to support a statewide ballot. The issue lost there and we won a statewide privilege of having up to 3 privately owned casinos in Detroit.”
“MGM and Motor City opened in 1999, then Greektown in 2000. Without revenue from those casinos, the city of Detroit would’ve been bankrupt a long time ago.”
“Comerica Park, the new Tigers stadium, was on its way. Mike Ilitch had bought the Detroit Tigers from Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. Like Mayor Coleman Young, we wanted to help Ilitch keep the Tigers here in the city. I investigated the feasibility of upgrading the stadium. The upgrade could not be done to accomplish their goals and the fans’ needs. We were able to get funding from the state and city to help build a new stadium.”
“Then the Lions came to Detroit from Pontiac. Bill Ford Jr. of Ford Motor Company couldn’t work out a new deal with the city of Pontiac, so we worked with him to bring the Detroit Lions football stadium downtown. We were blessed to have the Ilitch and Ford Families to work together.”
“Devil’s Night in Detroit was the name for the night before Halloween. It was notorious because of the arson. In 1983, there were 650 fires on Devil’s Night.
“In 1984, there were over 800 fires. After I became Mayor, I said this has to stop, especially since we had a problem in 1994.”
We created Angel’s Night after the idea was presented to us by John George. It took a few years, but it has been deemed a complete success. ”
Urban Renewal of the Sprawling Motor City
“New housing was being built in the city. Bob Larson (Vice Chairman of Taubman Co.) led a group that developed a zone concept to deal with vacant land in Detroit.”
“They divided the city into 10 zones. We invited representatives from each zone to Cobo Hall and we engaged them to elect people from each zone to talk to citizens in their zone to find out what they wanted done to help improve their lives.”
“Like I said in the book, when I was Mayor, the pace was frenetic, crisis management was constant, but the crime rate declined every single year I was in office.”
“We also helped beautify the parks. At the time, many were overgrown, dangerous, had no basketball nets. Bill Davidson, owner of the Detroit Pistons and his colleagues installed basketball courts and baseball diamonds. Then we helped to generate 30 more parks being cleaned and fully upgraded. Later they set up a $1 million-dollar endowment to help keep up the parks. The deal was that the City of Detroit Parks and Rec Department would keep it mowed and maintained.”
“Community organizers were painting houses, fixing porches, etc. Habitat led to a major effort within the city. ”
“Edsel Ford II said yes to being our Champion to celebrate the 300th Anniversary of Detroit on July 24th, 2001. He raised millions of dollars for Detroit. He also started the RiverWalk from Cobo to Ford Auditorium. We had tall ships, a 100-person choir singing. Part of the funds Edsel raised helped to build Campus Martius.”
“Roger Penske got the Grand Prix to come back to Detroit, spent a lot of his own money to do so.”
“I remember I was looking at Belle Isle with the Parks & Rec Department, thinking what would it take to redo Belle Isle? Our bond rating had gone up and we could borrow up to $80 million to redevelop Belle Isle. I said, we could charge per car and that money would go toward the maintenance of the park and we could pay off the bond in 14 years.”
Had we done that, it would’ve already been paid off by now. But, as a result of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the state of Michigan has Belle Isle for 30 years and are upgrading the island.”
Advice from President Clinton
“A few weeks after I got elected in 1994, I spent the night at the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom. President Clinton lost his voice after the State of Union address that evening, but we still talked while watching the Arkansas basketball game.”
“At the time, I was doing 3-4 speeches per day, trying to promote the city of Detroit. I asked him ‘how do you do this all the time?’ He said, ‘never make an important decision when you’re tired.’”
Deciding Not to Run for Mayor Again
“I decided not to run again because I was physically tired. I was working 16-18 hour days 7 days per week. Religious entities have church on Sunday, so I attended multiple functions every single Sunday. I enjoyed being mayor but also felt a new person with new and different ideas could take us to the next level and would be more helpful.”
“A few years later, I became President of the American Bar Association and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Detroit’s Regional Chamber.”
What Makes a Great Mayor
“Caring more about the people they’re serving than about themselves makes a great mayor.”
“Someone who is not afraid to stand up and fight for what’s right for the citizens of the city, help those less fortunate, improve opportunities for everyone, improve the police and fire department, listen to people and help solve their problems, etc, there’s a lot of components. Treat everyone fairly and with respect.”
The Law firm of Dickinson Wright
“Chairman Emeritus is a title of appreciation for my accomplishments on behalf of the Dickinson Wright firm while I was chairman.”
“When I left the Michigan Supreme Court in December 1990 and joined Dickinson Wright as equity partner in January 1991, I was trying cases, having meetings, and searching for solutions to the problems of the city of Detroit.”
“I was delighted that I could also help open doors for minority businesses and it allowed them to show that people of color can be successful.”
Some of Dennis’ Favorite Detroit Spots
Central Kitchen + Bar (“my son’s and his investors’ restaurant”)
London Chop House
The Caucus Club
Joe Muer’s Seafood
The Rattlesnake Club
Bakers Keyboard Lounge
Jimmy D’s Celebrity House (used to be on Livernois, it’s gone now)
Lafayette-Orleans Bar (also gone now)
Favorite Authors & Books
“I like John Grisham books. ‘Bobby Kennedy’ by Chris Matthews. Authors Charles Ogletree, Jesse Jackson, Robert Harris, and other Civil Rights leaders. ‘Dr. Martin Luther King’ by Taylor Branch.”
“Usually, I have to do a lot of required reading as a lawyer, so my reading-for-pleasure time is very limited.”
Eastern Market: A Detroit Gem
“Eastern Market is an outstanding resource for the city. Go by and visit Father Norman Thomas at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. One of the things on my agenda was to try and have Eastern Market open seven days per week, not just Saturday.”
“I asked Fr. Thomas to chair the initiative and he became head of the Eastern Market Task Force to help make Eastern Market a more attractive destination. My family and I still go down to Eastern Market frequently. We buy real Christmas trees there and buy BBQ at Bert’s and we’ll be at Detroit Bookfest.”
The Legacy of Dennis Archer
“What do I want to be remembered for the most? I’ll leave that to historians.”
“Just remember, when you put people first, good things will happen. And yes, the small things in life do make a difference.”
Let the Future Begin
Dennis Archer profile
Atkins & Greenspan
American Bar Association