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Detroit Happily Steps Into Role of Political HQ as Democrats Gather for Debate

Detroit has seen ups and downs since explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded it in 1701, but the Motor City’s current role as national politics central is definitely an up, the city’s power players are saying.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, 5,000 people will pack into the Fox Theatre each night for another two-part debate between 20 Democratic candidates for the 2020 White House. The landmark event comes on the heels of last week’s presidential forum of nine Democratic candidates and one Republican during the NAACP annual convention at Detroit’s Cobo Center. 

The birthplace of Motown music and headquarters of the U.S. auto industry is seeing a near jarring boom in downtown redevelopment and national meetings, but even with this, the 2020 candidate events have been a major coup, Detroit’s top official said.

“I’m glad that the national spotlight is on Detroit for its recovery as opposed to the last cycle when the conversation was about decline,” Mayor Mike Duggan told Fortune in an interview. 

Duggan heads a city that now has 12 major redevelopment projects in the works, 11 of them downtown and one on Detroit’s West Side. There are dozens of new shops and restaurants. The move of Quicken Loans’ headquarters to downtown Detroit in 2010 brought thousands of new jobs to the city’s core. 

The narrative is a reversal of the former story of Detroit, which was one of disinvestment caused by the left turn of the auto industry after Detroit’s 1950 heyday of 1.8 million residents. Population decline appears to be slowing, and seems to have bottomed out at 25% over a decade, according to the Census Bureau.

“I think the biggest thing here in Detroit and the biggest thing here in southeastern Michigan is the economic prospects of the middle class, people’s ability to support their family,” the mayor of the city of 673,000 said. 

The most crucial effect that the political events are having on the city is “exposure, frankly,” Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Fortune

“The (NAACP) convention itself exposed a lot of delegates to the city and many of them hadn’t been back here in years,” O’Callaghan said. “Also, the attention the media is giving now to the city now, such positive attention, is just new to us, and that word is getting out to the rest of America. People have penned us as the great comeback city.”

O’Callaghan recalled a time when he traveled to Chicago and noticed the large amount of people just walking down streets, crowding sidewalks. Now, he marveled, he sees that in his own city.

“A lot of really great things have happened for the city of Detroit for the past 10 years,” said O’Callaghan, who added that young people are returning back to the community. “Financially, people have really invested in the community. The whole region’s come together and the change are really impressive.”

And along with that buzz is a clamoring to be part of the political events, officials said.

“It’s beyond buzz—it’s a mania,” Jonathan Kinloch, chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party and third vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, told Fortune. “People are getting phone calls. They’re asking, ‘Where can I get tickets?’ I’m like, ‘I saw you last week, girl, and you didn’t say anything about tickets.’"

The Democratic party official and chair of The Kinloch Group, a multimedia consultancy, has been spending much of his time fielding calls from friends and associates asking whether he can get them much-sought-after seats to the Democratic debates. One big project on his plate is trying to find a spot for former U.S. Rep. John Conyers. 

Underneath the excitement about the 2020 White House candidates coming to Detroit is the understanding that Michigan is one of three states, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that have repeatedly been identified by political scholars as crucial to the 2020 election.

“I think in the 2016 campaign, the Democratic Party didn’t talk to the blue collar voters of this country and it cost us Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” Duggan said. “I think this time they won’t make the same mistake.”

In that same vein, this week’s debates also will offer an opportunity for the Democratic National Committee to show black Americans that they are crucial to next year’s general election, and any election, Kinloch said. Detroit is nearly 83% black, the highest proportion in the country, and has the United States’ fifth-largest black population in terms of numbers, according to census figures.

The issue of inclusion is a timely one in Detroit, where redevelopment and its financial benefits have been slow to trickle out to the outskirts and poorer neighborhoods, Kinloch said.

“I hope that they (DNC leaders) understand that there is a significance of them being here in Detroit and it should be visual with the audience both debate nights,” the Democratic Party official said. “We need to make sure that there are black people up front. I saw in Miami that there were a lot of donors that were up front. It is important for the audience to be reflective of the community that we’re holding this debate in.”

Kinloch added, “I often say all roads pass through the black vote, and especially out of the city of Detroit. We have to make sure we have increased turnout in the city of Detroit. This is an important demonstration to the residents of Detroit as to how important of a role they will play next year.”

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