Detroit Free Press
May 27, 2023
There’s never a dull moment when talking with the “Big Three” political leaders representing metro Detroit — Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter — which I had a chance to do twice in recent weeks.
On May 5, I emceed the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Southeast Michigan Leaders Breakfast at the Mint Conference Center in Lathrup Village before an audience of 200 business and political leaders. That event is the unofficial warmup for the chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, which kicks off this Tuesday as 1,500 strong from across the state head to the island to network, break bread and hear/talk about issues impacting the region.
I also had a chance to sit with the three county leaders this past week to tape CBS Detroit’s “Michigan Matters” (it airs 8 a.m. this Sunday) to discuss their municipalities and, of course, a little politics.
Talking with them offers a barometer of how our region is faring as they set the tone and lead so much. They are the point person for their respective county’s constituents, for employers and for other politicos.
What they do and how they work together matters.
“Our region is working more collectively — and better — compared to a decade ago,” said Sandy Baruah, president/CEO of the chamber. “This dynamic is a direct result of Dave, Warren and Mark building trust between themselves and by being good at their jobs.”
The three leaders all happen to be Democrats, in a state led by a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and where both chambers in the state Legislature are controlled by the “Ds,” thanks to the blue wave that swept Michigan in November. Interestingly, the three told me they didn’t see any more particular advantages because of that political trifecta when it comes to getting more dollars for projects in their neck of the woods.
In fact, they talked about the importance of building bipartisanship across the aisle not only in their home base but in Lansing, too.
“Get in the damn aisle and solve problems that the people are seeing,” Hackel said. “Find out what the real answers are, and let’s not make them political answers. Let’s do things that are on behalf of the people, that they truly want us to solve as public officials elected for everyone.”
Speaking of attention from Lansing, Evans surprised many in that chamber crowd when he voiced displeasure about the amount of resources going to Detroit, a city of over 600,000, versus the 42 other municipalities he represents in Wayne County, which cumulatively has a population of 1.2 million.
“I really don’t want to do this, but I think I’ve got to,” Evans said as he talked about funding for the city where he was born and raised and built his career.
As we close out Mental Health Month, which takes place in May, the three leaders talked about the growing need to do more to help people as this health crisis continues to grow among young people, older people and people who are incarcerated because they suffer mental health issues and land in jail instead of getting desperately needed help.
We also talked about regional transit and infrastructure as Macomb, Oakland and Wayne all have SMART millages in place now. Though the three leaders did mention their collaborative relationships with one another on many issues, Evans said this is one place they tend to differ when it comes to regional transit solutions.
I’d like to get people downtown, and back east and west, north and south,” Evans said. “I’d like to get people who need to get to the workforce development that we’re talking about. It’s one thing to say you got workforce development opportunity. It’s another thing to get somebody in an underserved community who doesn’t have transportation to get to workforce development.”
Despite challenges all faced, including the pandemic, the leaders said they were optimistic about the next 10 years, based on “team players who are willing to work together,” said Hackel.
The topic of the latest U.S. Census Bureau population numbers for the region, which found Detroit lost another 8,000 residents, came up as Evans also took issue with it, just as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who rounds out the region’s “Big Four” political leaders, told me a week ago when we taped “Michigan Matters.”
“You can look at DTE numbers of people they are serving as just one example,” Evans said. “They are up by the thousands. Yet, the census says they are down.”
They all talked about the talent gap still ongoing and the need to do a better job of helping young people find a career path, whether it’s trade school or college, or helping businesses find trained workers for jobs of today and tomorrow.
We talked about their political careers and I wondered aloud if they were just starting out as a young person, knowing what they know today about the volatile climate of politics, would they have still pursued elected office?
“Yes, I sure would,” said Coulter.
“No,” quipped Evans.
Hackel said he doesn’t consider himself a politician. Instead, he said, simply helping the community is what he does today just as he did when he served as Macomb County sheriff.
Coulter said the region needs to do a better job of waving the flag on its own behalf as a great place to live, work and play so the rest of the world knows.
“We have survived COVID. And we have the ability to thrive in the future if we brag about ourselves a little more,” Coulter said.
Hackel and Evans nodded in agreement.