It’s a tranquil Friday morning in early
summer on the shady, dead-end street
where Kevyn Orr resides in North
Chevy Chase. Home for an extended
weekend of family time, Orr converses
in a relaxed manner inside, occasionally reaching over to give his chocolate
Labrador retriever a reassuring pat as his
two young children play quietly nearby.
The scene seems a world removed
from the maelstrom of Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Center—Orr’s
temporary place of business, 500 miles
to the northwest—where, in a dramatic
series of moves just 24 hours earlier, he
stripped the city council president of his
salary and power for failing to show up
for work; ordered the termination of the
city’s contracts with two major municipal unions as a prelude to renegotiating
them; and yanked responsibility for providing electrical service to several local
institutions, including the school system, from Detroit’s aging, money-losing
Public Lighting Department.
Orr’s authority for these actions, along
with other headline-making moves just
weeks earlier—which included telling the
city’s creditors that Detroit could afford
to pay just pennies on the dollar to settle upwards of $11 billion in unsecured
debt—was handed to him in late March.
Invoking a controversial state law known
as Public Act 436, Michigan Republican
Gov. Rick Snyder bestowed upon Orr—a
highly regarded Washington bankruptcy
and restructuring attorney who is a life-long Democrat—the understated title of
emergency financial manager.
But “for all practical purposes, he is the
mayor,” veteran Detroit journalist Allan
Lengel says. In fact, Orr’s offices are adjacent to those of the current elected mayor,
onetime Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing.
Orr’s powers extend to the city council,
whose actions are subject to his approval;
in most instances, he can simply super-
sede the council if he so chooses.
Notwithstanding this sweeping man-
date, Public Act 436 guarantees Orr a
mere 18 months to address problems
that have festered for decades in what
was once America’s fourth largest city
(now its 18th, tumbling from a onetime
high of 1. 8 million residents to barely
700,000). Detroit’s diminishing options
were underscored in late July when Orr
filed a so-called Chapter 9 petition in
federal court—giving him the prece-
dent-setting legal task of navigating the
city’s emergence from the largest munic-
ipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
But as a man who has faced down
tremendous challenges—not just in his
career, but in his personal life, with the
murder of a onetime girlfriend at the
hands of a serial killer and the deaths of
his two brothers—he’s perhaps uniquely
qualified to tackle a job that would be
daunting to anyone else.
THE TASK IS NOT one to which
Orr aspired—or one he was initially
inclined to accept.
Orr had been working in the Washington office of Jones Day, an international law firm, for 12 years when he
was first approached about the Detroit
job. He had just been named partner-in-charge of Jones Day’s new office in
Miami, the city where he had started his
legal career three decades earlier.
“My first impulse was, ‘I don’t want
to do this. I’m very happy in the firm.
Things seem to be going quite well,’ ”
the 55-year-old Orr says. Barely three
years earlier he handled what many in
his field consider the case of a career—
representing the Chrysler Corp. in a six-week proceeding in New York during
the summer of 2009 that was considered
key to enabling the No. 3 automaker to
avoid liquidation and be sold to Fiat.
There were personal considerations,
as well. “I used to volunteer for the car
pool, get involved in the schools, and
coach my son’s baseball team,” Orr
says. “So I’m thinking: ‘It’s going to take
away from my family.’ ” He and his wife,
Donna Neale, an obstetrician/gynecolo-gist at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, have a son, 7, and a daughter, 5.
He accepted only after much cajoling
from the Michigan governor’s closest
adviser, Rich Baird, along with encouragement from Stephen Brogan, the
Jones Day managing partner whom Orr
regards as a mentor.
“When you’re a professional given
that kind of opportunity, you have to
think long and hard before you pass it
up,” Brogan says.
Orr’s wife was in favor of the move,
too. “My wife [was] saying, ‘Put up or
shut up,’ after spending years [listening
to] me on Sunday morning talk about
Meet the Press and grumping and grousing,” Orr chuckles.
But taking the job involved “sacrifice,”
Orr says. For one, Orr says his $275,000
annual salary as Detroit’s emergency manager is “a fraction” of what he had been
pulling down as a partner before resigning in March from Jones Day’s D.C. office.
“But it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
So at least through the end of September 2014, Orr will remain a weekend
resident of Chevy Chase, sleeping weeknights in a Detroit condo, having his
mail screened and traveling around the
city accompanied by a security detail.
“I had not understood the loss of privacy and the scrutiny—and that’s probably some naïveté on my part,” says Orr,
who has quickly become a household
name in Detroit. “I get up in the morning, my security detail meets me downstairs. I come home at 8, 9 o’clock, they
walk me to my door and lock me in. It’s a
very cloistered life. I miss the anonymity.”