Dec 10, 2022 - News

Axios Detroit's 2022 power players list

Illustration of two rows of dominos falling with text overlaid that reads Power Players Detroit.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Welcome to our first annual Axios Detroit Power Players list, a chance to look back at the influential leaders who left their mark on our area this year.

Methodology: We selected these power players using our own expertise, polling readers and through interviews with influential people.

  • The unscientific list is produced entirely by the Axios Local editorial team and is not influenced by advertising in any way.
  • Those selected were not notified until publication.

📬 Of course, the eight spots won't cover every influential person in metro Detroit, but we respect your time.

1. Dan Gilbert

Gilbert speaks at a 2021 event in Detroit.
Dan Gilbert speaks at a 2021 event in Detroit. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

His public appearances have been less frequent since a 2019 stroke, but Gilbert's ambitions to reshape downtown and build his legacy have not been deterred by his less-than-public health recovery.

  • Whether a result of his extensive philanthropy or campaign contributions, the billionaire business owner and investor seems to enjoy carte blanche when it comes to government approvals for his projects.
  • Gilbert's $1.4 billion Hudson's site downtown project on Woodward Avenue is moving along thanks to a $60-million tax break approved by City Council in July.
  • And his real estate firm, Bedrock, just bought another riverfront property, the 108-room Roberts Riverwalk Hotel.

2. Charity Dean

Portrait of Charity Dean
Photo: Courtesy of Charity Dean

As president of the Metro-Detroit Black Business Alliance, Charity Dean was a prominent opponent of a major City Council proposal this year that would have required restaurants to post color-coded health inspection results signs outside their doors.

  • The measure, which she argued would disproportionately hurt already-disenfranchised entrepreneurs, was ultimately defeated.

What's more: Dean also opened a food business, Rosa, this summer.

  • She was previously director of the city's Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department, in which she led small-business support efforts during the height of the pandemic.

3. Detroit City Council's public commenters

The public waits to address Detroit City Council.
The public waits to address the Detroit City Council. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

Residents' cumulative hours spent speaking out against controversial city proposals this year didn't just occupy council members' time every week — the force of their influence was on display in the results of consequential council votes.

The intrigue: Council meetings' hybrid nature, in which residents can speak on Zoom or in person, made it easier for more to participate.

  • But with all those deliberations now taking place in a chamber much smaller than the council's usual auditorium, public commenters were extra persistent as they were forced to wait in long lines in the lobby, where they couldn't hear or be heard.

And yet, people came out in droves to speak about such issues as the gunshot surveillance tool ShotSpotter and Gilbert's Hudson's project tax break.

  • Several council members followed the lead of commenters when questioning and eventually turning down a controversial paratransit contract with Transdev, a company with a poor track record.

4. Mike Duggan

Mayor Duggan greets press conference attendees.
Mayor Duggan greets press conference attendees. Photo: Erin Kirkland/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As year one of his third term comes to a close, Mayor Mike Duggan remains the city's premier political power broker.

  • He is feared, respected and disliked — depending on whom you ask.

The intrigue: Though Duggan has leveraged his relationship with the business community to land splashy projects like Michigan Central train depot's revitalization, Detroit continues to combat widespread poverty, rising housing costs, evictions and crime.

What we're watching: His relationship with the City Council bears watching next year after the council recently voted down the paratransit contract — a rare public defeat for the administration.

  • Rumors are swirling about a run for governor.

5. Icewear Vezzo

Vezzo and his mother, Mildred Smith, at the rapper's back to school giveaway on Aug. 26,
Vezzo and his mother, Mildred Smith, at the rapper's back to school giveaway on Aug. 26, where he was presented with a service award from the city by Council President Mary Sheffield. Photo: City of Detroit/Flickr

Rapper Icewear Vezzo is the leader of Detroit's influential sound that's earned a place in the national spotlight after a decade of being overlooked.

Inspired by the street legends of his childhood, Blade Icewood and Eastside Chedda Boyz, Vezzo gained popularity by rapping about getting paid over speaker-rattling bass.

  • Even though he's now collaborating with A-list artists like Future, Kodak Black and Lil Baby, Vezzo remains connected and active as a resident.

6. Wendy Lewis Jackson

Portrait of Wendy Lewis Jackson
Photo: Courtesy of Kresge Foundation

As managing director of the Kresge Foundation's Detroit program, Wendy Lewis Jackson is at the forefront of neighborhood revitalization efforts throughout the city. She holds court with everyone from block club members to high-ranking city and corporate officials.

Driving the news: Kresge's investments in the Livernois-McNichols area are paying off. The nearby Marygrove Conservancy campus, to which the foundation made a $75 million commitment, opened a new elementary school this year as part of its "cradle-to-career" educational model.

  • Next year, the school's first high school class will graduate.

7. Arn Tellem

Tellem bumps elbows with Vice President and then-Sen. Kamala Harris in 2020.
Tellem bumps elbows with then-Sen. Kamala Harris in 2020. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Detroit Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem has been at the forefront of the team's return to the city from Auburn Hills.

What's next: Through his political and business relationships, Tellem will be instrumental in fulfilling team owner Tom Gores' goal of expanding the Pistons' imprint outside of Little Caesars Arena in the near future.

8. Nicole Sherard-Freeman

Portrait of Nicole Sherard-Freeman
Photo: Courtesy of the city of Detroit

Nicole Sherard-Freeman leads the city's economic and workforce development department, including the ever-expanding employment connection machine "Detroit at Work."

  • Sherard-Freeman's leadership helped reduce the city's jobless rate to 7%, matching its lowest level since 2000, and she's shown a knack for helping land big employers in Detroit like Stellantis and Amazon (although the fulfillment center's opening is delayed, putting about 1,100 local warehouse jobs on hold).

Go deeper: See all 200 of Axios Local's Power Players in 2022


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