Commentary: Detroit’s next mayor

Sep 27, 2012

Ten years or so ago, I went to talk to the powerful and flamboyant medical malpractice lawyer Geoffrey Fieger, probably best known for successfully defending Dr. Jack Kevorkian in a series of sensational, high-profile assisted suicide trials.

He said he was thinking about running for mayor of Detroit, and wanted my confidential advice. I told him I thought that was a brilliant idea, but that there were only three things wrong with it.

First of all, he didn’t live in Detroit. “I could buy a house there,“ Fieger said. Given his seven-figure income, I agreed that was certainly true. However, I told him, you can‘t win. Detroit is an embattled, virtually all-black city.

Too many of the residents will not vote for a white mayor, no matter what. “You‘re wrong,” Fieger told me. He pointed out that he spent a lot of time helping criminal defendants in Detroit.

Most of this he did pro bono, for free. His father had been a prominent civil rights attorney, and Fieger argued that he had street credibility. “They’ll vote for me, all right,” he said.

Well, I’ve covered a lot of elections, and my political instinct told me Fieger was wrong. He might have made it through the primary and into the runoff. But I couldn’t see him winning.

He sharply disagreed, and I said, “Well, my third reason is bigger than both those put together. I might be wrong. You might win, and then, what would you do? How would you ‘fix’ Detroit?”

Fieger conceded that I might have a point, and he didn’t run. Well, now we have another fairly prominent white suburban lawyer running: Mike Duggan, who I first met back in the 90s, when he was an assistant Wayne County executive, who mainly served as the fixer for the political machine run by then-county executive Ed McNamara.

Duggan, now 54, went on to become Wayne County prosecutor, and then won deservedly high marks for straightening out the mess that was the troubled Detroit Medical Center.

The mayoral rumors started when Duggan, who lived virtually all his life in Livonia, bought a house in Detroit a few months ago.

Yesterday, he made it official; he hopes to be elected mayor next year. There are still some of us who wish politicians waited for the current election to finish before starting another campaign, but never mind. But does Duggan have a chance?

I think the same two questions I asked Fieger years ago are relevant here. Detroiters are sometimes near-paranoid about outsiders stealing their city from them, as the debate over Belle Isle shows. Are they really ready to elect as their mayor a ruddy-cheekd Irishman from one of Michigan’s whitest suburbs?

Frankly, I doubt it. And while the average Detroiter does know Geoffrey Fieger, right now only the movers and shakers know Duggan. Now, you can certainly make a good case that Duggan might be Detroit’s ideal mayor, or, maybe, emergency manager. He has a track record of being effective and competent. He has turned around at least one large, financially troubled quasi-public institution.

Can he persuade Detroit voters to give him a chance to do the same thing? I am highly skeptical.  But at the same time, it could be fascinating if he got the chance to try.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.