Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 18, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Debunking myths about Detroit


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Myth No. 1: Everyone “knows” that Detroiters are deeply biased against anyone who is not “one of them,” which means anyone living outside the city and, especially, anyone white.

Myth No. 2: Detroiters are also fundamentally ignorant, largely illiterate, and would rather suffer in their murderous hellhole of a city than give up any amount of political control.

There are lots of people who have long believed both things. To be sure, the actions of some of the city’s politicians — the criminal and sexually promiscuous mayor; the disappearing city council president —have often helped further the worst stereotypes.

Yet Detroiters recently went to the polls and, in an amazingly stunning result, proved both myths decisively wrong. More than half the voters cast write-in votes for a candidate who is white, wasn’t on the ballot, and has lived in the city barely a year.

Everyone knew that Mike Duggan, previously a longtime resident of the lily-white suburb of Livonia, moved to Detroit just to run for mayor. Yet not only did a majority of all voters write his name in, but something like 85 percent of it spelled it exactly. Thousands of others wrote things like “M. Duggan” or “Michael Duggan.”

Voters were not in a mood to be distracted.

The news media went crazy a few days before the election when a new write-in candidate appeared in what was clearly a strategy designed to confuse voters.

Mike Dugeon, a barber who had never previously voted, suddenly decided to run as a write-in, after being led to the clerk’s office by Charlie LeDuff, a reporter for Detroit’s Fox affiliate.

That led to predictions things would be hopelessly confused, and that there might be a Florida recount-style battle over which write-in votes were legal and which were not.

But the population was far too smart for that. Mike the barber got a grand total of 17 votes, plus around 20 more slight misspellings that probably were meant to be for him.

Mike Duggan the original candidate, the 55-year-old former wayne county prosecutor, deputy county executive and, most recently, head of the Detroit Medical Center, got 44,395 votes.

Plus ballots were marked “Mike Duggan the whiteman,” and “The White Guy Mike Duggan,” from voters who wanted to make perfectly clear which candidate they preferred.

What happened?

Shiela Cockrel, a former council member who has been active in Detroit politics for decades, said, “Voters just want someone who can fix the city. They want the streetlights to come on, they want the cops to come when they are called. That‘s all they care about.”

Clearly, they felt Duggan was best equipped to do that.

The man who may have been most astonished by the result was the supposed front-runner, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, 57. Charismatic and well-liked, “Benny” is a lifelong Detroiter who easily qualified for the ballot. But he managed only 28,352 votes. Duggan beat him in 95 percent of the precincts.

But is this an indication of what will happen in the general election? Eight years ago, challenger Freman Hendrix beat the controversial incumbent, Kwame Kilpatrick, in the primary — only to lose to him in the general election three months later.

Some commentators said that while the Duggan showing was indeed surprising, it came when there was very low turnout. The candidates would face a different electorate in November, they said.

Except there are reasons to believe both assumptions are wrong. While elections officials said the turnout was a mere 18 percent, the official number of registered voters — 550,000 — is hilariously out of state. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are only 514,000 adults in the entire city, and not all are registered.

There was more interest in Detroit than in most places in President Obama’s re-election last year. Still, fewer than 300,000 people voted in that general election. In Detroit’s last election for mayor, fewer than 125,000 people cast ballots.

Everyone agrees the city has fewer people now. Complete, unofficial returns from last week’s primary show 95,691 votes.

The odds against the general election being dramatically different seem long indeed, even if the votes for the other candidates, none of whom got even 6 percent, all go to Benny Napoleon.

That doesn’t mean that Duggan couldn’t lose. Nor does it say what kind of mayor he, or Napoleon, would be.

What we do know is that the city officials elected in November - a mayor and nine council members - will take office Jan. 1, 2014.

But they will be largely powerless while Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr remains at the helm, and while the city’s bankruptcy filing plays out in federal court.

However, by October of that year, the bankruptcy will be complete, and the new city council will be able to dismiss Orr.

The question voters, and the press, need to be asking both Duggan and Napoleon is - what happens then?

How will any new mayor keep the city solvent and yet improve the services that the city absolutely needs to prosper?

How will the new mayor work with a newly elected council, most of whom will come from individual districts, to position the city to grow and be prosperous again? How, in a time of limited and still-shrinking resources, can Detroit manage to attract the new capital, jobs, and residents it needs if it hopes to survive and thrive?

Finding the right answers to these questions is probably the most important task facing whoever wins in November.

What is encouraging is that Detroit voters - so far - seem willing to go outside their traditional comfort zones to find them.

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.