Kevyn Orr Reflects On Time in Detroit Before Exit

here was a time when Kevyn Orr, in his contentious role as emergency financial manager of Detroit, didn't recognize himself.

"A lot of people were saying things and you sort of step back and say, 'Who are they talking about? Who is this guy?'" says Orr, 56. "They are not talking about me. They are talking about some other guy named Kevyn Orr. I've got to find out who this guy is."

Speaking inside his office in Cadillac Place in mid-September-an ad hoc empty space, save for a few framed commercial photos of downtown Detroit-Orr reflects on his journey to becoming emergency manager.

"It wasn't clear it was going to be a bankruptcy at that time. But they were seeking advice with a restructuring effort, because, remember, the issue of Detroit's financials had been going on since November 2011."

Orr's law firm, Jones Day, was brought in by Gov. Rick Snyder to assess the city's financial situation. It was soon clear the city was in a fiscal state of emergency.


"We came in as a result of that finding to talk about what, if anything, we could do to assist the city. During that interview process, they called and asked me if I was willing to consider applying for an emergency manager position," says Orr. "I initially said I was not."

The hotly contested emergency manager position was a violation of the "will of the people," many thought. And the amount of power this position would wield was thought tyrannical. But Orr says he's no tyrant-just a family man from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with deep Southern roots. His only connection to Detroit had been his time at the University of Michigan (1976-83) and an uncle Steve he visited from time to time.

But on March 25, 2013, Orr began his 18-month term as emergency manager and cemented his place in history as one of the most controversial figures in Detroit. Now, that tenure has come to an end (his last official day was Sept. 27; he's now shifting to a role of solely managing Detroit's bankruptcy). As he hands the keys to the city to Mayor Mike Duggan and city council, Orr reflects.

Why did you initially turn down the emergency manager job?

I was very comfortable where I was in my firm. In addition, I was going to open up my firm's Miami office where I practiced before. But after some discussion with my wife and the managing partner of the firm, we decided it was something worth exploring to assist the city. I think eventually I did have a meeting with the governor and Transformation Manager Richard Baird. And then, subsequently, the governor's office offered me the job.

What changed your mind?

Something that had been said by both my wife and my managing partner, who is also a good friend of mine-sometimes doing difficult things that need to be done, it is a lot easier to say no. But it's a call to action and the question you really have to ask yourself is: Not so much what you say now, but what are you going to say a year, five, 10 years from now? When someone asked you to step outside of your immediate comfort zone and circumstances for what everybody recognized was a job that needed to be done.

How did you manage backlash?

There was so much when I came in. And there was so much focus on who everyone said I was going to be. These are people who have never met me. I like to have thought, before I got here, people did a fairly deep dive of me. And no one found anything that said I was all these things. Everybody is entitled to their opinions. But you sort of just try to do the right thing despite what people may say. That's just the way you should handle yourself.

What was your priority the first day on the job?

Really, getting oriented-but also trying to calm everyone down. First day on the job was trying to say: I'm going to try to do this based upon fact. And based upon the best judgment, not because I have an agenda. A lot of people said, 'Well, he wants to sell off all of Detroit's assets.' And my response was: 'I haven't even done an analysis of what the assets are.'

Some said I was going to fire all of city council. I said, 'No, my reading of the statute is that there is a role for the mayor and city council. I want to work with them.' So first day, I tried to keep fidelity with what I said before I came in. I offered a sincere olive branch, let's work together-and tried to tamp down all of the turmoil around who I was going to be.

Why do you think this received so much attention? You've handled much bigger cases, such as the Bill Clinton Whitewater scandal and the Chrysler bankruptcy.

To be honest with you, it was surprising to me. As near as I can make out, a lot of people want to try, on various sides, to say that Detroit can be an example, a metaphor for something else. And I said, 'No. Judge Detroit in and on its own right, based upon the issues we have to deal with'-which I think everybody recognizes as a long time coming. All this other stuff about what it means for other municipalities, that's not my job. My job is not what it means in the bond market. What it means for labor relations. Those broader issues are not my job. My issue is to deal with the issues for Detroit.

Knowing what you do now, would you still have taken the job?

I don't know. I keep saying I'm just a snapshot in the history of the city, and hopefully we can move beyond all that. But I did not expect this level of attention. I underestimated that. Would I have taken it? I think the outcomes that we are getting to are worthwhile and are good.

But they come at a cost. I am away from my family. I have certainly been off the path of my career for a little bit. And it has taken a lot of effort. I like to think I would (take the job again). But I'd be careful with anyone saying definitively you'd do something. You'd have to examine it at that time.

Emergency manager of Detroit has to be a good resume boost?

You don't know! I tell people, 'Look, we are still not through it all.' But we don't know what the future is going to hold. And the future looks like it is going to be productive and good. But if any of the deals we've done blow up or are miscalculated, somebody can still come in and say, 'You know, it wasn't worth it. They did a bad job.' So I don't take anything for granted. I say I think we are getting to do the job that I was supposed to do.

Have you had a chance to see the beauty of Detroit beyond the bankruptcy proceedings?

On the weekends you will find me either at home or in front of a transcript, or a settlement agreement, or on a conference call until 3 o'clock in the morning with my restructuring team. We tried to compress several years of effort into a year and a half. And it hasn't been a whole lot of time off to do that. So what do I do for fun? Well, I try to get up at 6 and go to the gym for an hour.

You mentioned discovering our barbecue. What are your favorites?

Well, They Say has excellent wings off East Jefferson Avenue. Rubbed, right downtown, has great barbecue. There is also always Slows. I fancy myself as a little bit of a barbecue connoisseur.

One thing is, looking back, it's been pretty busy-busier than I thought. Secondly, you may have noticed I don't go to a lot of openings, ribbon cuttings, ceremonies and things like that. I view my job as an emergency manager, not a politician or public figure.

And you finally visited the Detroit Institute of Arts …

That's when we announced the DIA settlement. I hadn't been there before. I was afraid of going because the press would say, 'Of course, Kevyn Orr is casing the joint.'

But I'd love to go to the fireworks. I love football. I love baseball. I'd love to go to Tigers games. I just haven't been able to do that. Maybe when we get through this, we can do some of that.

Do you see the youth as a major part of Detroit's restructuring?

I do. When I went to Miami in 1983, Time and Newsweek magazines had two years of stories about how Miami is burning. And it will never come back. It was wrecked by race riots.

Coming out of law school, all my friends say, 'What, are you nuts? Why are you going to Miami?' And I said, 'I think it is opportunity, it is home for me. You don't shy away from it.' And that was just before South Beach and Coconut Grove blew up. And now it is off the charts. It's an international city that is thriving.

I feel that same sort of vibrance and energy coming to Detroit. I've seen this before. I've seen it happen in my lifetime at least three other times. And the centers of Detroit have that same feel to it.

Do you understand the racial tension of your control?

Sure, but this is historically long-standing. And some of this is not by happenstance. It has been designed. There is a book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, which chronicles the history of Detroit. Before I came here, I read the book about the housing riots that occurred. How 375 was built to divide the Black Bottom, Lafayette Park area. How redlining as an official federal government housing policy was pioneered in Detroit. So racial tension has been long-standing here.

What lessons have you learned?

It has been a growth spurt. I've learned to be resolute. When I first got here, there were certainly a lot of detractors. And if you did not have a sense of self and confidence, you could certainly have been distracted.

I learned that if you believe what you are doing is right, based upon the information you have, even if there maybe others who do not have that same level of commitment to what you are doing, but if you believe in it, stand firm. And ride it out. Many of my detractors are now some of my friends.

I've learned that throughout history there have been people who have had to go through this sort of arc. Go through the furnace of criticism and come out on the other side a little bit harder. You know, Eisenhower wrote a letter to the American people about the failure of the Normandy invasion on the eve of D-Day. He assumed if it didn't work, he was going to have to go and negotiate peace with Hitler. But he went through with it anyway and followed through.

There are other points in history where you may be the only who thinks you are doing the right thing, and you may be at risk; you may be wrong. But if you believe you are right, stay with it.

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