How a 2005 EMU grad became a leading opponent of Michigan's emergency manager law
A 2005 Eastern Michigan University graduate who championed social justice and racial equality as a college student has morphed into a chief headache provider for Gov. Rick Snyder and supporters of the state’s emergency manager law.
Brandon Jessup, CEO of Detroit-based Michigan Forward, said he’s “absolutely” convinced that his nonprofit will secure enough signatures in a statewide petition drive to temporarily freeze the emergency manager law and give voters a chance to repeal it in November.
Jessup, 30, who has never held elected office, has nonetheless become the face of the fight against the emergency manager law.
Lisa Carolin | For AnnArbor.com
Jessup, former president of EMU's chapter of the NAACP, and other opponents of the state’s emergency manager law say that it undercuts democracy and unfairly targets communities with a large population of black residents.
But supporters of the law fear that struggling cities, including Detroit, could be forced to file for bankruptcy without an emergency manager to impose financial prudence.
In an interview Tuesday, Jessup described the emergency manager law as a “disaster for Michigan’s urban communities” and a threat to democracy. He said he’s confident his group will secure the 161,305 valid signatures required by the state to place legislation on the ballot. So far, the group has compiled more than 157,000, he said.
“The state of Michigan is waking up,” Jessup said. “We’re definitely going to get there. We’re going to get there sooner than a lot of people expect.”
If the signatures are submitted and certified — a process that is sure to involve legal disputes, experts say — the law would be frozen until the November election.
Michigan Forward’s critics say that result could be disastrous for cities and school districts that need an emergency manager to avoid bankruptcy.
“The bottom line is what Brandon is doing unfortunately may be very destructive for the city of Detroit,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics and a former Republican state legislator.
Petition drive draws attention
Snyder’s administration is taking Michigan Forward’s petition drive seriously. State Treasurer Andy Dillon acknowledged last week that the Legislature may have to adopt alternative legislation that would replace the emergency manager law at least until an election can be held.
Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said the governor does not consider bankruptcy an acceptable option for struggling cities such as Detroit, which is reportedly set to run out of cash by spring without major cuts.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Jessup
Snyder, a Republican, believes the emergency manager law is necessary to help distressed cities and school districts permanently repair their finances.
“The governor feels strongly that he has a responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of struggling communities and our overall state, and that we simply can’t ignore these fiscal crises of communities or school districts and allow them go into bankruptcy,” Wurfel said in an email.
“If the law is suspended, the potential ramifications and unintended consequences could be severe and not in anyone’s best interest.”
Now, after a thorough financial review, emergency managers appointed to run a municipality or school district are given broad authority to restructure union deals, slash compensation, cut contracts, lay off workers, reduce budgets and strip elected officials of their authority.
Republicans have championed the legislation as critical to helping struggling cities and schools avert catastrophe and achieve financial sustainability.
But critics, including Jessup and the Washtenaw Community Action Team, describe the law as an affront to democracy and an attack on the state’s urban areas. Jessup rejected the suggestion that repealing the law would lead to chaos.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of in democracy. We believe in democracy. We believe in the process, so we don’t foresee crises,” Jessup said. “We don’t want bankruptcy, neither do we want emergency management, and we know that emergency managers increase deficits.”
Jessup founded Michigan Forward in 2008 as an “urban public policy think tank.” The group is structured as a “nonpartisan” 501(c)(3), Jessup said, and is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign.
Jessup said Michigan Forward gets limited financial support from various groups, including unions such as the Michigan Education Association, which donated petitions. He said “thousands of volunteers” have distributed petitions and secured signatures.
“This is 100 percent grassroots,” he said. “You look at the bank account of Michigan Forward, and you don’t see many zeros there.”
Ballenger said the state’s major employee unions are using Michigan Forward as a proxy to fight Snyder’s emergency manager law.
“I don’t care how much they talk about elbow grease, it seems to me you have to have financial backing to get this on the ballot,” Ballenger said.
Jessup enters the spotlight
The petition drive has elevated Jessup’s public profile. On Sunday, he was the featured guest on Lansing journalist Tim Skubick’s “Off the Record” program, which airs on PBS stations throughout the state. He’s also been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, many Michigan newspapers and TV stations as a leader of the movement against emergency managers.
Jessup’s interest in civil rights can be traced back to EMU, where he served as president of the university’s chapter of the NAACP, fought against tuition increases, campaigned for improvements to on-campus housing and supported development of a “campus creed.”
Jessup, who was born in New Orleans and lives in Detroit, graduated from Bishop Borgess Catholic High School in Redford in 1999. He enrolled at Defiance College in Ohio but quickly transferred to EMU in 2000. Shortly after 9/11, he felt inspired to join student government and quickly became an influential figure on campus.
“His work with the campus chapter of the NAACP propelled the group to a place of distinction among student organizations,” said Heather Neff, an author and EMU professor who specializes in African-American literature and women's literature, in an email. “He showed himself to be principled and dedicated to issues of social justice at an age when many young people are struggling to discover their direction in life.”
Jessup said one of his most formative experiences at EMU revolved around his coursework with the Department of African American Studies. He said his experiences at EMU exposed him to a broader definition of diversity.
“When I came to Eastern, I learned what diversity looked like,” he said, citing the many nationalities represented by the student body. “I was prepared for leadership, I was prepared to be flexible, to listen to other ideas, to try to bring those common solutions that really benefit everybody.”
After graduating from EMU, Jessup joined the One United Michigan campaign to oppose a 2006 ballot initiative that amended the state’s Constitution to outlaw affirmative action.
He later joined a Washington D.C.-based social advocacy group called the Advancement Project, which successfully pressured Michigan to restore voting rights to more than 7,000 people who had been “illegally purged from the voter rolls,” Jessup said. He also founded an information technology consultancy called NorthStar Innovation using his EMU bachelor’s degree in computer information systems.
Jessup is not shy about his ambition. He has been quoted as saying that he would like to be president of the United States some day — and he reiterated that goal on Tuesday.
In the near term, though, Jessup is viewed as a likely candidate for public office in Michigan at some point.
“If the people of Michigan and voters ever decide that they would like to see me in elected office, I would definitely answer that call, but right now my focus is” on Michigan Forward, Jessup said.
Ballenger suggested that Jessup’s involvement in Michigan Forward could be tactical.
“Maybe he thinks this is his ticket to ride to glory,” Ballenger said.
Jessup said the push to repeal the emergency manager law “has been a labor of love,” describing Michigan Forward’s involvement as “a stand for history” despite its limited financial resources.
“If you look at the history of civil rights and movements like this, they don’t start with a lot of money,” he said.
Neff said Jessup’s involvement in the statewide political initiative is not a surprise.
“I don't think that anyone who taught him is surprised by his activism or the courage to his convictions,” Neff said. “He is now a role model to younger students and to others in his community who are looking for concrete means to address social inequality."
What role does race play?
The debate over the role of race in Michigan’s emergency manager law is proving to be divisive. Emergency managers have been appointed in several communities, including places like Benton Harbor and Flint, where racial tension is common.
“The numbers don’t lie. And we have to say it: African Americans are being disproportionately impacted by this legislation. Gov. Snyder can’t run from that,” Jessup said.
Jessup said Snyder needs to play a constructive role in revitalizing Detroit.
“We need him sitting at the table,” Jessup said. “He needs to come down, roll up his sleeves and meet the working families of Detroit. He has to embrace the fact that Detroit is key to the region and key to the state.”
Since the early days of his gubernatorial campaign, Snyder, a former Ann Arbor venture capitalist, has emphasized the importance of Detroit’s recovery to Michigan’s future.
Wurfel, Snyder’s spokeswoman, said emergency managers are being appointed “because of financial facts and crises, not because the make-up of their populations.”
She added, in her email: “Gov. Snyder believes deeply that he represents, and is accountable to, ALL Michiganders regardless of where they live or what color their skin is. And that now is the time for unity and that we all need to be standing and working together to collectively address these challenging times.”