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‘Buzz’ Thomas Goes Beyond Cool Cities

A state senator from Detroit revives the faded Urban Caucus

July 16, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Senator Samuel ‘Buzz’ Thomas, who supports land use reform, hopes the Urban Caucus will keep the state focused on reviving its many troubled cities.

The first time Detroiter Samuel ‘Buzz’ Thomas won the Michigan House of Representatives seat for the 10th District in 1996, his victory had a historic ring to it. One hundred and four years earlier his great granduncle, William Web Ferguson, won a similar election to become the state’s first African-American legislator.

That sense of history continues to mark Mr. Thomas’s political career. His colleagues made him the House Democratic Leader, only the second time that a black Michigan legislator had assumed that role. Then, last year, Mr. Thomas made more history when he became the Michigan Senate’s youngest member.

Observers say that Senator Thomas’ record as a legislator belies his relative youth. Currently the senator is resurrecting and reorganizing the Urban Legislative Caucus, which he hopes will provide an ongoing forum for discussing how best to revive older Michigan cities, almost all of which are losing population. The senator says those discussions would not only benefit Detroit and Grand Rapids, but also cities such as Saginaw, Flint, and Muskegon. Senator Thomas views his caucus as an important adjunct to Governor Jennifer Granholm’s "Cool Cities" initiative and a Republican-formulated legislative package, called CORE, that also addresses urban concerns.

GREAT LAKES BULLETIN NEWS SERVICE: As the Michigan Senate’s youngest member, do you sense any generational divide?

SENATOR THOMAS: At times, but I don’t think that there is an inherent generational divide. I think there are probably style differences. Some people view young people as arrogant or obnoxious. That does weigh on me, so there are times when I do try to think before I speak. I don’t want to just be known as ‘the boy in the Senate.’ I must admit that sometimes I get youthfully exuberant and I might rush into an issue before discussing it with colleagues and seeking their input.

GLBNS: But that "youthful exuberance" must work for you, given your success.

THOMAS: I think people like being around enthusiastic people that seem happy at doing what they’re doing. If you really believe in something and you’re bubbling about it, that enthusiasm is infectious.

GLBNS: What did you learn from working as a staff member for two U.S. congressmen?

THOMAS: Certainly I have an appreciation for the role of the people who work for me. I’m an expert at nothing and a generalist in many things, so I need strong staff support to bring me up to speed. Also, Washington prepared me in a very competitive Congressional environment to know how to deal with colleagues. Much of what we do here in Lansing is in building relationships and in finding ways to seek common ground with your colleagues.

GLBNS: Why did you re-launch the Urban Caucus?

THOMAS: I think the bipartisan urban caucus was one of the greatest inventions of the mid-90s Legislature. It provided a great leadership development opportunity and, at a time of great political partisanship, provided a true bipartisan arena for legislators. We focused on cities and laid the foundation for land use policies. We have unfinished business, though; the caucus actually had little success in passing legislation.

Today much of the debate on land use focuses on saving the family farm, preserving open spaces, and managing the growth outside of cities. I want to re-focus the debate on growth in the city. There are enough of us now talking about preserving farmlands, but we don’t talk enough about reinventing the central city.

GLBNS: So are you going to use the urban revitalization chapter of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s report as a road map, or return to that caucus’s unfinished business?

THOMAS: Both. I want our agenda to be decided by caucus members, and I’m still deciding what exactly is a core city and how best to recruit caucus members. It’s still a work in progress. My ultimate vision, though, is to take what is specific to the inner city in the land use council report and give it its hearing. But I’d also like to see if there are other issues raised by the bipartisan caucus in the '90s, or other policymakers nationally.

GLBNS: Senator Jason Allen has introduced very broad and general commerce center legislation. Does it speak to cities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, or Grand Rapids?

THOMAS: This is exactly why we need an urban caucus. Everything that is introduced in the legislature now is so general, so that you can build as much support as possible. I think there’s a time and place for that. But to me the land use council report was our chance to make a big splash -- not take little trickling steps. Senator Allen is a very deliberate lawmaker who likes to develop consensus. I think it is his way of inviting folks that have an interest to come and craft with him something they can support. I will, without question, be partnering with him.

GLBNS: Detroit received three of the governor’s Cool Cities grants. Will they have a real impact on the neighborhoods they target?

THOMAS: I think their potential as catalysts is pretty good. Eastern Market, which received one of the grants, is one of the greatest untapped resources in Detroit. If you look at Pike Street Market in Seattle, that’s a wonderful tourist attraction. Why can’t we have something like that in Detroit? Why can’t we link agriculture and inner cities together and find that they work?

I want to challenge the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and others to make Eastern Market an agricultural processing renaissance zone. We used to have the largest food processing enterprises in the state in Detroit, and we should try to attract large agricultural processors back into the inner city, bring the raw product in, process it, and ship it out. We’ve got wonderful modes of commercial transportation right there. If we can get a car anywhere in the world in only a few days, we could get some food there.

The grant for southwest Detroit promotes a multi-cultural experience. Cool Cities discussions emphasize attracting different types of people into a community where they can live and interact with one another. If we can promote that -- and southwest Detroit is probably the best example in the city -- then that’s great. Dollars and cents and investments matter, but attitude matters too.

GLBNES: Is it time then for an image enhancement campaign for Detroit and other urban locales?

THOMAS: That’s what the Cool Cities initiative does. $100,000 is a very small amount of money, but it tells a city the state believes in it and that there is something special about it: Take the grant, shape it, run with it. To me, that is grand.

But the state and local governments need to work on some neighborhood development in Detroit. I sponsored land bank fast-track legislation in the House, which only speaks to properties that are completely blighted. Let’s invest in neighborhoods that are still in relatively good shape, rather than first letting them degrade so far. Intervene now, particularly on Detroit’s west side, which hasn’t yet hit bottom. Invest there. That would make for a Cool City and a livable city. Part of the way you rebuild the middle class is by having nice homes and neighbor hoods for people to live in.

GLBNS: The Michigan Land Use Institute is partnering with the Detroit Branch of the NAACP on a People and Land project that actually sprang from the work of the land use council. We are working on affordable housing, transit, and race relations.

What is your sense of affordable housing, particularly with the recent federal changes that affect more than 50,000 Michigan households receiving "Section 8" funding. Will landlords drop out of the program?

THOMAS: Many of the affordable developments that were done in the '70s and '80s using that federal subsidy are now being converted to condominiums. We desperately need a discussion about affordable housing, but we must frame it as "affordable and supportive housing." "Affordable housing" has a stigma about building government homes. We have to talk about building a supportive community with houses being the central figure. That needs to be a discussion for the caucus, and anyone else interested in talking about it -- if we’re going to get there. It’s not just about building $40,000 houses. It’s difficult to be a $40,000 house in today’s world without some form of tax credit or subsidy.

GLBNS: At a recent Preservation Wayne forum, some developers who expressed interest in Detroit housing projects said that the difference between the cost of renovating a property and the price they can get for it on the rental market is a real obstacle.

THOMAS: The government needs to fill that kind of gap. There are all kinds of incentives for commercial developments, but not for residential properties. Building lofts in Detroit, for example, is incredibly expensive; offering them at an affordable price is a great challenge. Historic renovations are the same way. So there probably does need to be an incentive, additional resources, or a way to better leverage federal monies.

GLBNS: What about the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry between the Detroit and suburban bus system?

THOMAS: It’s time for a wedding, and maybe it’s a shotgun. You cannot have regional transportation with two competing systems. The question becomes who governs, how, and who pays. This region must embrace transit and make it easy for people to commute from city to suburb, suburb to city, and suburb to suburb. All the great cities that we want to be like have better transit than us, even cities like Los Angeles. We should explore all of the options: Buses, light rail, even targeted light rail between downtown and the airport would be a start.

GLBNS: For the first time, there was a discussion of race at the recent Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Island Conference. Is there willingness among your colleagues to discuss race relations, particularly from an economic development standpoint?

THOMAS: I’m not sure. I think that race is probably the biggest issue that never gets talked about that hinders true regionalism and urban renaissance in Michigan. We are a very polarized state; southeast Michigan is a very polarized community. We all come from varying backgrounds and experiences, so we need to be careful; but we also must have thick enough skin and broad enough shoulders to understand that when the conversation feels uncomfortable, maybe that means we’re having a productive discussion.

GLBNS: What would you like to see the urban caucus accomplish in the next two years?

THOMAS: I would love to see a dozen to 20 members in the Senate and 30 to 50 members in the House fully embracing an inner city, core city agenda that speaks about health care disparities, transportation inefficiencies, and creating housing policy in the cities. I would love to see some specific legislative successes. I want the most effective group of legislators. I want us to really work as a team -- Democrats and Republicans -- from cities that want the best return on investment. And that doesn’t mean that we won’t support other parts of the state; we’ll do that too. But it means that we have a special eye on our little inner city gems.

Charlene Crowell is a Lansing policy specialist and directs the Institute’s projects in Detroit. Reach her at Charlene@mlui.org.

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