In the weeks leading up to Brenda Jones’s vote in November 2017 to award $250 million in taxpayer funds to billionaire Dan Gilbert and his Quicken Loans empire, the Detroit City Council president cashed $8,000 in campaign checks from current and former executives at Gilbert’s companies. In total, Jones has received nearly $25,000 in campaign contributions from the executives, their spouses, and Quicken’s political action committee, while Gilbert, Michigan’s richest man, has accumulated over half a billion in public subsidies.
The $250 million from the city council allowed Gilbert, the owner and co-founder of Quicken Loans, to continue an ambitious redevelopment of downtown Detroit through his real estate company, Bedrock. In the years that followed — and as Jones collected more Gilbert-linked campaign contributions — the relationship between Jones and Gilbert has only tightened.
Jones is one of just two elected officials, alongside her ally, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, on the board of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. One section of the Trump tax cuts included the bipartisan Opportunity Zone program, which selects low-income census tracts for lucrative tax breaks. The DEGC helped to craft Michigan’s recommendations to the Treasury Department for Opportunity Zone designations that benefited Gilbert. A ProPublica investigation revealed Gilbert’s role in lobbying for the census tract designations, which sparked outrage in Detroit, including a call for a congressional investigation from first-term Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents the city in Congress.
Jones, however, made no public statement as anger rose at Gilbert following the revelations. Jones also stayed silent as Gilbert attracted criticism for refusing to assist the city in collecting income taxes from the new, wealthier residents of Bedrock’s luxury apartment buildings.
Jones and Tlaib faced off in two elections in 2018, one to fill the remainder of former Rep. John Conyers’s term, the second for the nomination to succeed him in the next Congress. Jones won the first, serving for roughly three weeks, while Tlaib won the second, going on to become a high-profile member of the so-called Squad, quickly making headlines declaring that House Democrats would “go in and impeach the motherfucker.”
Gilbert, who has been referred to by President Donald Trump as “a great friend,” is the most powerful man in Detroit, and owns vast swaths of the city. But his team responded angrily and attacked Tlaib’s demand for an investigation. “Rep. Tlaib would be well served to spend some time at www.oppzonefacts.com learning the truth behind the false ProPublica narrative before advocating that the government spend the public’s money chasing a ghost story,” a Quicken Loans representative told the local press. Now Gilbert has an opportunity to help a politician deeply enmeshed in the census tract designation as a board member of a powerful local development agency, as opposed to a member of Congress, Tlaib, who demanded a federal investigation into the controversial tax break.
Polls for the August 4 Democratic primary show a tight race.
The Intercept reported last month that Jones had received illegal campaign contributions in her 2017 re-election campaign to the Detroit City Council. Neither Jones nor Gilbert, through Quicken Loans, responded to requests for comment.
Gilbert’s entrance into Detroit began in 2011 when Quicken Loans moved its headquarters to downtown from Livonia in the Michigan suburbs. In a city that is 84 percent African American, with 35 percent of the city and half of its children in poverty, Gilbert’s role in Detroit’s politics and development have not come without controversy. Community discomfort with Gilbert’s vaunted new status was encapsulated in 2017 when Bedrock ran an ad campaign titled “See Detroit As We Do” featuring overwhelmingly white models.
“Dan throws a tremendous amount of money around in the city,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, who lives in Detroit and is co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. “He is a political kingmaker. It’s difficult for people to credibly contest him and feel that they can keep their job or their funding because those are the things that are threatened when you take on such a powerful person. If you’re contesting power in Detroit, you’re contesting Dan Gilbert.”
Gilbert is the richest man in Michigan, with a net worth of $7.3 billion.
“The risk here is that a small group of developers can capture a city council or county board and get overpaid to do something they would have done anyways” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, which advocates for transparent and fair municipal subsidies.
“If you’re contesting power in Detroit, you’re contesting Dan Gilbert.”
“For a city like Detroit, it really doesn’t have the luxury of wasting any money,” LeRoy said. “Do you want to put all your eggs in one basket, like Dan Gilbert-sized office parks, or do you try to do other things where you’re not putting so many eggs in one basket — where you’re doing public transit, public infrastructure, health, and education, all the things that benefit lots of employers and don’t put you at risk of any one company’s business plan not working out?”
Between 2011 and 2016, Gilbert and his affiliated companies spent $451 million purchasing parcels of land in downtown Detroit. Gilbert and his companies employ over 17,000 workers in Detroit, making it the city’s largest employer. Of the five lenders that had the highest percentage of foreclosures in the city in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, only Quicken is still extant. As of 2015, half of the properties that Quicken has foreclosed on had become blighted. Gilbert has been a leading advocate of expanded government funding to tear down blighted structures. Last June, Quicken Loans paid $32 million to settle charges brought by the Justice Department that it had approved hundreds of loans for unqualified borrowers, and then profited when the borrowers defaulted.
“Dan Gilbert and Brenda Jones are not looking out for the residents,” said Charlevoix VIllage Association President Toyia Watts, a community organization that led the opposition to the 2017 giveaway. “They’re not putting money in the pots for fixing up homes, give the people that live here the empty lots they’ve maintained. We’ve given developers too much power over the community. They have too much power over our neighborhood. The way they’re making money doesn’t work for us.”
BP-Weeks noted the connection between Quicken’s role in the subprime lending crisis and Gilbert’s role in crafting development policy in Detroit today. “Quicken is the folks that were responsible for the last housing crisis” said BP-Weeks. “For an executive of Quicken making all those decisions including about housing is ridiculous. He should not be making those decisions.”