DETROIT -- Brandon Jessup is not shy about sharing his thoughts on Public Act 4, the Michigan law that allows state-appointed emergency managers to run cash-strapped cities and school districts.
"The fact is that Public Act 4 is bad public policy," Jessup said in a recent interview. "It's been bad public policy since 1988. So why are we continuing this process?"
Over the last nine months, fighting the legislation has become a central part of Jessup's work as chairman and CEO of Michigan Forward, a Detroit-based progressive think tank and advocacy group that has been the guiding force behind a petition drive aimed at repealing the law.
Public Act 4, pushed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and passed by the Republican-majority state legislature one year ago, provides the state with unprecedented power to take over local municipal bodies. If a state review team judges a local government or school board to be in financial distress, the governor may appoint an emergency manager to administer its finances and day-to-day operations.
Michigan has long had a similar system of emergency financial managers, who were authorized under Public Act 101 of 1988 and Public Act 72 of 1990 to manage the finances of governmental bodies facing bankruptcy. But Public Act 4 grants the governor and his appointed emergency managers vast new powers, including the ability to overrule and dismiss elected officials, to rewrite contracts and to sell off public assets. Emergency managers currently run the cities of Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint and Pontiac and the school districts of Highland Park and Detroit. The cities of Detroit and Allen Park and the Muskegon Heights school district are now facing possible takeovers.
Jessup might agree with Snyder and other state officials who say that struggling municipalities need fiscal reform and that corrupt politicians should be removed, but he insists the problems of Michigan's urban centers must be handled democratically, with forward-thinking public policy. Budget cuts and city employee health care restructuring are officials' preferred solutions, but they don't get at the root of the problem.
"I didn't ask for a dictator to come in and continue the same process," said Jessup, who helped found Michigan Forward in 2008. "If we had good policy to alleviate the situation, we wouldn't be sitting here right now."
According to Jessup, the financial crises afflicting many of Michigan's urban centers have been caused by high unemployment, crumbling tax bases and changes in state revenue sharing -- problems that he argues emergency managers, despite their unilateral power to break contracts and sell public assets, can't address.
"We would like to see the economy in southeast Michigan begin to generate half-a-trillion dollars," he said. "How can we do that when we have 30 percent unemployment in Detroit? How can we do that when we have 30 percent unemployment in Inkster? How can we do that when we have the city of Pontiac up for sale?"
Pontiac faces a projected $9 million deficit. The emergency manager there is looking to sell many of the city's assets, including City Hall.
Jessup sees such plans as misguided at best, and possible power grabs at worst. Rather than the governor's sending appointed officials to solve the problems of struggling cities, Jessup urges greater cooperation among the state's population centers. He thinks strengthening cities like Detroit and Pontiac would ultimately benefit the entire state. Stronger cities could even stem the exodus of Michigan's young people.
'DEMOCRACY GAVE US THE AUTHORITY'
Jessup believes strong cities also require major involvement from working-class citizens, something he sees in Michigan Forward's petition drive to freeze Public Act 4 and put the law up for referendum on the November ballot.
On Feb. 29, Jessup traveled by bus to Michigan's state capitol with other members of Stand Up for Democracy, a statewide alliance involved in the petition effort, to drop off 50 boxes of petitions seeking a statewide referendum on Public Act 4. The state required 161,305 signatures for a ballot initiative. Jessup and Stand Up for Democracy organizers say they collected and vetted 226,637 from around the state. The signatures await verification by the Michigan Secretary of State.
If the anti-Public Act 4 effort ultimately succeeds, it will be a rare victory for a grassroots alliance in Michigan. Only seven referendums have been placed on the ballot through citizen initiatives since 1963, and only one has passed.
Jessup said completing the petition drive has been a relief for Michigan Forward's staff, who have worked since June 2011 collecting signatures.
"We've got this burden off our shoulders," he told The Huffington Post on the bus ride to Lansing. "It was a test for an organization this young to start something so big. A lot of folks were wondering, 'Who is Michigan Forward? Who gave you the authority to do this?' And we said, 'Well, democracy gave us the authority!'"
The campaign is certainly helping Michigan Forward make a name for itself. The think tank has more than 1,000 members across the state, all trying to advance progressive public policies that benefit Michigan's urban centers and adjacent suburbs.
Jessup began feeding Michigan Forward's roots the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he was still a student at Eastern Michigan University. He attended a talk sponsored by the campus NAACP chapter that examined the attacks and their connection to U.S. foreign policy.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm going to get involved,'" Jessup recalled. "And from that point, I became president of the [NAACP] chapter at Eastern."
He went on to serve three years. Under his direction, the NAACP chapter pushed for a student bill of rights. And he chaired the student-led task force behind the "campus creed" that now sits in every office at Eastern Michigan University.
Later, Jessup ran the state NAACP's Youth and College Division, becoming involved in an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative on affirmative action. He founded Michigan Forward in 2008 with several other young activists interested in promoting Michigan's cities.
Since last June, his goal has been to collect enough signatures to put Public Act 4 on the ballot. The state required 161,305 for a ballot initiative. Jessup and Stand Up for Democracy organizers say they collected and vetted 226,637 from around the state. The signatures await verification by the Michigan Secretary of State.
Now that the petition drive is over, Jessup said Michigan Forward will be pursuing other ways to help cities. Later this spring, members will release an urban economic report on state and federal policy initiatives. Jessup hopes to work with the Financial and Academic Reinvestment Commission, a Highland Park-based group backed by Democratic state Sen. Bert Johnson that also opposes emergency managers and is working on similar proposals.
Coalition politics are nothing new to Jessup. He learned from his father, a union organizer in Detroit, and his mother, who helped charter a chapter of the Black Panther Party in New Orleans.
He said cooperation among groups was essential to the early success of the Public Act 4 referendum drive. Jessup gives most of the credit for the campaign's strength to the many groups and individual volunteers involved in the Stand Up for Democracy alliance, which included American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Michigan teachers unions, among others.
Pressure on the coalition to expand its alliance will only increase as it seeks to influence voters on the potential November referendum. A January Detroit Free Press/WXYZ poll found that Michigan voters are evenly split on emergency managers.
Jessup said the coalition hopes to reach 2 million voters throughout the state during the next stage of its campaign. Crossing cultural and geographic lines will be vital to the effort, a challenge he clearly acknowledges.
"We live in a democracy, so we've got to talk to people who don't think like us, that may not look like us," he said. "But I bet you we can share some common goals and ideas."
Below, see photos of Stand Up For Democracy members turning in their petitions to Michigan's Secretary of State: