Detroit — Weeks from his 77th birthday, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer reflected Sunday on his career path and background, including a time as the second associate justice then to have served on the state Supreme Court.
A crowd of about three dozen people gathered at the Detroit Public Library’s main branch to hear Archer’s look back, including convincing the Detroit Lions to play in the city again and luring Compuware downtown.
He spoke for about 80 minutes on his background, his time on Michigan Supreme Court and why he left his seat as an associate justice to seek the position for which he’s best known, Detroit’s mayor, from 1994 to 2001.
The talk followed the release last year of his memoir, “Let the Future Begin,” and Archer used it as a springboard to a larger point.
The memoir, Archer said, can be a “road map” for someone from modest beginnings to rise to prominence and pursue public service.
“You can start from almost nothing” and still succeed, Archer said.
Taneca Chapman-Mills, 44, a librarian who spent her own time attending Archer’s talk, said it was worthwhile seeing her “favorite mayor.”
Chapman-Mills praised Archer for his “diplomatic” demeanor, which she said stood in contrast to his predecessor, the late Coleman Young.
Archer’s soft-spoken nature and the lack of working microphones in the Clara Stanton Jones Friends Auditorium, led the former mayor to ask the small group, which had been spread throughout the auditorium on his arrival, to fill seats near the front.
Only near the end of his remarks, when talking excitedly about the city’s efforts during his administration to create more job opportunities for Detroiters, did Archer, clad in a dark sports coat with elbow patches, depart from the professorial demeanor that was his hallmark during his two terms.
There were no mentions during his talk of Mayor Mike Duggan, the current occupant of the Manoogian Mansion; Kwame Kilpatrick, who immediately succeeded Archer as mayor; or the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.
“ ‘Let the Future Begin’ is not about me,” Archer said — the title taken from the tag line of his 1993 campaign. “It’s about Detroit and Detroiters. What do we want from our city?”
The talk itself was focused on how a boy from tiny Cassopolis grew up to walk the corridors of power, and his attempts to pull others through the door.
Archer said his motivation to write the book came from his grandchildren, now 10 and 13, who never knew him as mayor. Since leaving office, Archer returned to Dickinson Wright, where he had been since before joining the world of politics. In 1985, then-Gov. Jim Blanchard tapped him to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court. He won a full, eight-year term in that November’s election.
Even then, he had his eyes on another office. Due to Michigan law, a sitting judge could not also run for a non-judicial office.
Archer concerned with the condition of Detroit, resigned from the Michigan Supreme Court in 1990 and set his sights on Michigan’s largest city.
He and several University of Michigan professors put together a document called “Thoughts on a Greater Detroit” in the fall of 1991, and sent it out to 1,000 Michiganians, including Young.
Archer said he hoped Young would simply follow his recommendations and he’d be able to remain in the lucrative private sector.
Archer had been only the second black Michigan Supreme Court justice when he resigned to explore the mayoral run. The first, Otis Smith, had last served in 1966, some 20 years earlier. Archer said he didn’t want it to be another 20 years until the third black justice donned the robe.
Conrad Mallett Jr. was appointed to replace him, and became chief justice by the end of his service. Today, Mallett serves on Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners, and there have been two more black justices. By January, there won’t be any.
Archer wrote his memoir in collaboration with Elizabeth Atkins, conducted interviews of the books’ subjects for their insights — insights Archer said would be more honest if conveyed to a third party rather than to himself.
While Archer did not directly take up the question of his legacy, he read from U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith’s foreword, which credits him for recruiting the Detroit Lions to the city again, attracting Peter Karmanos’ Compuware to set up shop downtown, with “turning Detroit around” and with “laying the foundation” for Detroit as it exists today.
Archer is chairman emeritus at Dickinson Wright, where he said he spends as much time talking to janitors about their lives as he does speaking to CEOs.
If Detroit is to return to the ranks of critical future cities, education, he said, which lifted him from modest beginnings, “is the absolute key.”
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