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Politics in his future? Detroit case has 'done me in', Orr says

Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr gestures as he speaks during an interview with Thomson Reuters in New York April 9, 2014. REUTERS/Edua
Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr gestures as he speaks during an interview with Thomson Reuters in New York April 9, 2014. REUTERS/Edua

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr had political ambitions - once.

But just over a year after taking on what is now the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the experienced bankruptcy attorney says any notions he had of running for public office have been eradicated.

"This has erased any political aspirations, dead or barely alive, that I ever had, and I was a political science major," Orr said. "This has done me in."

When Orr began his career in the 1980s as a trial attorney in the rough-and-tumble world of Florida's Miami-Dade County, he thought he might one day run for public office, he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

To be sure, Orr, 55, has not voiced interest in any particular public office. But with a decade of federal government service to his credit and now running a major American city, he could be an appealing candidate for either party.

"You have to be willing to stand there and deal with some of the irrational behavior, just slings and arrows for no reason, and be willing to keep true north and keep doing it," he said, fielding questions with an eye on two cellphones in front of him - one for his wife, and one for everyone else.

Orr was appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in March 2013 to devise a rescue plan for the Motor City, which has suffered a rapid outflow of population and has about $18 billion of debt and liabilities. He filed Detroit's bankruptcy case in July.

As an African-American, a Democrat and the head of the diversity task force at Jones Day, Orr filled some of the likely prerequisites for an emergency manager imposed on a predominantly black, heavily Democratic city by a white, Republican governor.

Though unelected, Orr holds enormous sway over the city's future. His plan, which is still being negotiated with creditors and must ultimately win a judge's approval, proposes significant losses for creditors, ranging from pension funds to bondholders.

Orr told Reuters he was unlikely to take on other major Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy cases in future.

"You probably won't see me in this kind of gig again," the restructuring expert said. "I think I've had my fill."

He's fought tough battles before. He was counsel at the Resolution Trust Corp, the federal agency set up to mop up the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and early '90s.

He was chief counsel to the RTC during the Whitewater investigation, a high-profile probe into the collapse of a thrift with connections to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Later, as a private-practice attorney for the law firm Jones Day, Orr represented automaker Chrysler during its bankruptcy, which he described as "politically explosive."

But the Detroit case has also focused him on what he feels are his true talents.

"I really enjoy the financial aspects and restructuring and strategy," he said.

Still, his time in Detroit is beginning to run out, with less than six months left in his current job. After that he has just one plan: A "long vacation on a warm island" with his wife.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Dan Burns and Jonathan Oatis)

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