Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 7, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Duggan asks voters to write in


— Two things seemed clear a month ago: First, the Detroit mayor’s race would come down to Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon; between a man famous for running organizations and a popular county sheriff and former police chief.

Second, most members of the higher-end business and professional community, white and black, were backing the 55-year-old Duggan, who, after a long career as deputy Wayne County Executive and then county prosecutor, is best known for turning around the finances of the troubled Detroit Medical Center.

They felt, as long-time city council member Sheila Cockrel said, that he was the one man with the vision and the practical know-how to lead, once Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr leaves and turns control back over to elected officials, sometime after October 2014.

Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Duggan was thrown off the ballot on a technicality. The rules said he had to have lived in Detroit for at least a year before filing signatures to run for mayor.

He seemed to have his bases covered. Duggan, who has lived most of his life in the Wayne County suburb of Livonia, bought a home in Detroit and registered to vote April 16, 2012.

The filing deadline was this May 14. But Duggan turned his signatures in April 2. Tom Barrow, a perennial candidate, filed a lawsuit charging Duggan was ineligible to run.

To the candidate’s shock, a Wayne County circuit judge ruled against Duggan, and a Michigan Court of Appeals panel agreed.

Stunned, Mike Duggan declined to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, and ended his campaign. At first, he pooh-poohed the suggestion of a write-in campaign. But then he changed his mind.

Saying he was heartened by a large outpouring of sentiment from those who felt he had been robbed, the candidate said he would throw himself heart and soul into a write-in effort.

“If the voters think it should be me, I’m going to go out and campaign as hard as I can,” he told supporters and the press.

But can he do it?

That would seem extremely difficult. Last year, after former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia) failed to qualify for the ballot, many conventional Republicans were horrified.

The only name on their primary ballot was that of Kerry Bentivolio, an extreme Tea Party supporter with a record of financial difficulties and a questionable professional record.

They backed a primary write-in campaign for State Sen. Nancy Cassis. Though it was well-funded and well-publicized, she lost two to one. Bentivolio went on to win the seat.

However, Duggan supporters point out, he doesn’t have to come in first as a write-in primary candidate. They essentially concede Benny Napoleon is bound to lead the field. All Mike Duggan has to do is come in second in the August voting.

If he can do that, he will be on the ballot in November, and the election will be a whole new ballgame. But even that won’t be easy.

Though most of the more than a dozen other candidates are little-known, three may have some voter appeal, including former State Rep. Lisa Howze and current State Rep. Fred Durhal, both Democrats. Tom Barrow, who has led the fight to keep Duggan off the ballot, has made it to the general election three times.

He lost all those elections, in 1985, 1989 and 2009. In the 1990s he did a stretch in federal prison for tax evasion, a conviction he has been fighting to have overturned.

The Barrow name is a familiar one to Detroiters, and being on the ballot may be a distinct advantage over a candidate who has to depend on voters remembering to write in his name.

Then, Duggan faces other problems. One study concluded that as many as 47 percent of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate. Though those numbers are disputed, there is no question that literacy rates are a problem, and that may hamper write-in efforts.

And what if voters write in his name - but don’t spell it correctly? Fred Woodhams, who is with the Michigan Secretary of State’s election division, said “The name doesn’t have to be correct, but the intent of the voter has to be clear.”

But what if some think it isn’t?

In that case, “the Wayne County Board of Canvassers would determine whether a write-in vote counted,” Woodhams said.

Trouble is, you can bet it wouldn’t be that simple. Barrow and perhaps other candidates are bound to challenge every write-in vote, especially if the overall result is close.

That could easily turn Detroit into a replica of the 2000 Florida recount and virtually paralyze the process with just weeks before the Nov. 5 general election. Nobody, of course, knows exactly how all this will play out. But one thing does seem clear:

When it comes to Detroit, nothing seems to be easy.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.