Perhaps the most amazing story of the Detroit mayoral race is that the candidates are running like it matters.
The city is in the throes of bankruptcy, with nearly $20 billion in debts and long-term liabilities. It’s too soon to tell what settlement or terms Detroit will have to abide by in the years to come. Meanwhile, emergency manager Kevyn Orr, a lawyer appointed by Governor Rick Snyder in March, has the authority of both mayor and council for at least another year. He’s using that authority, too, leaving Mayor Dave Bing (who is not running for re-election) with little decision-making power in his final months in office. Facing this new governance, several city councilmembers opted to resign, or to not run for re-election this year. The president pro tem left for a $225,000 a year job in Orr’s office.
One couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this year’s mayoral election would be anti-climatic, positioning an incoming mayor as nothing more than a placeholder as Detroit moves through the fire of transformation. Whoever wins the 2013 mayoral race is going to be what amounts to an advisor for Orr, at least through the end of the emergency manager’s term in late 2014. And yet, the campaign has become a soap opera, with the two men on the November ballot—Democrats Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon—battling each other with brute strength.
Duggan is the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center (DMC), where he is celebrated for navigating the system through financial crisis. In 2012, he left the DMC and moved into the city from the suburbs—where he lived for years after growing up in Detroit—in order to campaign. Rather like Dave Bing before him, he’s championing his business experience as critical for Detroit’s future. Duggan is also the former Wayne County prosecutor, where he went after drug houses and negligent property owners. (Detroit is in Wayne County). Duggan’s mayoral platform includes the creation of a new ‘department of neighborhoods’ in City Hall; it’s the signature behind his campaign slogan: “every neighborhood has a future.” The ten-point plan for the neighborhoods department indicates that chairs would be assigned to each of the city’s seven new City Council districts. Duggan also wants to make code enforcement more aggressive, while streamlining the sale, seizure, and demolition of abandoned properties—notably, Detroit has as many as 78,000 vacant structures, many of which have become dangerous to the community. Mayor Bing is nearing his target of tearing down 10,000 of these vacants over his term, and federal and state initiatives are accelerating the push, but it’s only the start of what needs to be done.
Duggan’s campaign is endorsed by several union locals, and at least 150 Detroit business leaders. The Detroit News supports Duggan, as does The Detroit Free Press, The Free Press is cautious, however, warning that he is pushing too close against the “boss” mayoral model. “Duggan … seems to imagine a grand mayoralty along the lines of what Richard J. Daley enjoyed in bygone Chicago,” wrote Stephen Henderson, the Free Press’s editorial page editor. He added that Duggan’s argument for his management skills as the key to solving the city’s problems “is unrealistic in an era of declining tax base, when the shift of economic power to outside the city’s borders has been so dramatic…”
If Duggan wins, it will be the first time since 1969 that Detroit elected a white mayor. It would be a significant shift for the city, which is about 83 percent African American and 9 percent white. But it has surprised many that race hasn’t played out significantly in the campaign. Aside from coded language by opponents about whether Duggan belongs in the city, voters have had a more shoulder-shrugging attitude about it. As The New York Times put it, “Asked about the prospect of having a white mayor, voters said that after years of mismanagement in Detroit’s government, race was at the bottom of their priority list.” Even a local Black Panther leader, minister Malik Shabazz, endorsed Duggan, saying that he sees “a lot of myself” in Duggan.
“He's the first white guy who really wasn't afraid of me, so I dug that," Shabazz told Business Insider recently.
Napoleon, meanwhile, is the popular Wayne County sheriff, pushing his deep roots in law enforcement to voters who are weary of Detroit’s crime. The city has seen a dramatic rise in violent crime even as other American cities saw it drop. Its police force has struggled under five different police chiefs in four years. To change the momentum, Napoleon has proposed assigning a police officer for each square mile of the city that he says will be key for his public safety goal: a 50 percent crime reduction during his first term. As police chief in the 1990s, Napoleon was noted for helping to reduce crime by 30 percent, with a big drop in youth shootings. However, as sheriff, Napoleon overran his budgets: he has a projected $30 million deficit in fiscal year 2012-2013. Regarding Detroit’s economy, Napoleon proposes creating a “one-stop shop” for businesses, and reforming the licensing process so that it takes hours, not months, for businesses to get going.
Napoleon was born and raised in Detroit, giving him the sort of local expertise and relationships he says Duggan can’t match. His major critique of the city’s current leadership is that the development focus on downtown and Midtown has come at the expense of the neighborhoods. Napoleon won significant endorsements from labor unions, (including AFSCME and the UAW), influential clergy, and most of the Detroit delegation of state legislators. Actor Mekhi Pfieffer and comedian Mike Epps have made appearances at his fundraising events.
What might have been a spirited election between two intelligent men took a turn for the absurd, however. Duggan was kicked of the primary ballot in May after his eligibility was challenged in court by one of his opponents and a labor activist. Detroit’s charter requires those who run for office to have been residents of the city for at least a year before filing for office. Duggan was a registered Detroit voter for two weeks shy of one year when he filed his petition for candidacy six weeks before the deadline. He reportedly had asked the city clerk if it was a problem to file his petitions before the deadline and was told he was fine, but the legal judgment ruled against him. This pushed the leading candidate off the August 6 ballot, which left 14 candidates listed. Duggan then launched a massive write-in campaign, aiming to be one of the top two finishers in the election and thereby ensure his place on the November 5 ballot.
Duggan’s efforts to inspire Detroiters to write his name in—and spell it correctly—were challenged by a late-emerging candidate in the race: a 30-year-old Detroit barber named Mike Dugeon who had never voted before, and who said that his campaign started as a joke by journalist Charlie LeDuff on a TV news interview. Speculation suggested that Dugeon was persuaded to enter the race specifically to trip up Duggan’s chances, forcing the board that tallies the write-in ballots to determine, if a name is misspelled, whether the voter intended to support Duggan or Dugeon.
In this morass, it was shocking to see the primary-vote totals. Duggan not only made the November ballot, but he came in first. It was the first time since 1925 that any write-in candidate won an election in Detroit. With more than 50 percent of the total, Duggan bested Napoleon even in neighborhoods where the sheriff had deep roots. With at least twice the funding as Napoleon, Duggan proved he also had the support of a wide swath of Detroit: the precinct map is startling in its illustration of Duggan’s dominance. Napoleon was left with three more months to turn the tide, and drum up turnout at the polls among his supporters, though a recent poll of likely voters showed that Duggan leads the sheriff 2:1.
The drama didn’t end on primary day, either. For weeks, the primary ballots supporting Duggan were held up—and about 24,000 were nearly tossed out because they were incorrectly logged by poll workers. If those votes were discounted, Duggan would’ve fallen into second place behind Napoleon. But even Napoleon came out in support of every ballot being counted, despite the bookkeeping snafu. Eventually, after a state review, they were. Napoleon has also argued for federal oversight on the November election. “How can we come up with three vote counts that are vastly different and be OK with this?” he asked the Detroit Free Press. Some political analysts suggest that repeated attacks on Duggan’s candidacy has made him more sympathetic to voters and helped his campaign.
Should Duggan win, it will be a vote that undercuts the notion that Detroiters are consumed by a toxic cycle of so-called racial politics that negates their ability to make civic decisions. It will also suggest that Detroiters are hungry for new strategies to solve old problems, and that they are persuaded that Duggan’s doggedness and public/private expertise are needed to enhance the “workability” of the city.
But if Napoleon comes out with the win, it will indicate that voters see public safety as their number-one concern, even as the big-picture questions of Detroit’s essential organization are being negotiated in bankruptcy court and under emergency management. It also suggests that they trust him to have their interests at heart, as someone with a lifetime stake in the community.
Regardless of who wins in November, the new mayor of Detroit will begin his term under the shadow of Kevyn Orr. Both Duggan and Napoleon have been outspoken in their opposition to the emergency manager, suggesting that once they are in office, they will bring the skills that will render emergency management unnecessary. “We’ve elected a person to manage the city within a framework that the court is leading, so why would we need an emergency manager?” said Napoleon, according to the Free Press. “I’m more than capable of carrying out the directions of the court.” Duggan, meanwhile, said his first task as mayor would be to convince the governor to end Orr’s team early and, failing that, “I’ll take my own plan of adjustment to the judge.”
But it’s unimaginable that Orr will be dismissed in the wake of the election, and the new mayor is going to have to figure out how to work with him—or at least use the time to build the administration that can successfully transition out of state oversight later in the year. For his part, Orr’s spokesman has stated that the emergency manager “looks forward to working with Detroiters’ choice for their next mayor and representatives on City Council as we continue to rebuild Detroit,” though of course the current relationship with Bing is evidence for the limits of that. Nonetheless, behind-the-scenes battles between the mayor and Orr will not amount to much more than theater, and given the stage Detroit is on right now, we hardly need any more drama.