Commentary: Detroit’s next mayor?

Feb 27, 2013

Twelve years ago, I went to talk to Geoffrey Fieger, Michigan’s most flamboyant attorney. Fieger told me he was thinking about running for mayor of Detroit, and wanted to know what I thought.

I told him I thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea with only three fatal flaws. “What do you mean?” he said. “Well, first of all, you don’t live there,” I said. Fieger told me he could buy a house anywhere. I didn’t dispute that.

But there was a second problem. I told him, you aren’t going to get elected because you aren’t black. Detroiters aren’t ready to vote for a white mayor. “You’re wrong,” Fieger said. “They love me.”

Indeed, over the years, he has defended, often pro bono, Detroiters in a number of high-profile police brutality and civil rights cases. I agreed he was a hero to some. I said if he spent enough money, he might even get into the runoff. But I didn’t think he could win.

Yesterday, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan made it official: He is running for mayor.  Most give him credit for turning around the finances of the medical system, which was then sold to a company called Vanguard.

And if there is one thing everyone agrees, it’s that Detroit needs its finances turned around. Whether Duggan could do that as mayor, I don’t know. He’d have to work with a new city council. In any event, by November, an emergency manager is likely to be in place, meaning any mayor will be a figurehead.

Still, Duggan wants the job. He has been saying things that seem designed to pander to the voters. He opposed the deal to allow the state to fix up Belle Isle, and claims an emergency manager is not really needed.

But it seems to me that this is a case of ego triumphing over common sense. There are, to be sure, educated, open-minded African Americans who might be willing to vote for a white mayor. But they largely live in the suburbs now.

Detroit is full of people who think the state’s offer to pour millions into fixing up Belle Isle is somehow a plot to steal the island from poor black people in the city.

To think they would vote for a ruddy-faced white Irish machine politician from Livonia who moved to Detroit less than a year ago strains credulity. Duggan has financial backers.

He might be able to get into a runoff with Sheriff Benny Napoleon. But not only would he not win, there would be an unhealthy subtext of race running through the campaign,

Actually, I think Duggan is going after the wrong job. He would be a far more suitable Emergency Manager than mayor. He knows how to shake up a troubled system, and this would be his ultimate challenge. That is, if the governor could be persuaded.

To get back to my story about Geoffrey Fieger. I told him there was final reason he shouldn’t run for mayor of Detroit. “I might be wrong,” I said. “You might get elected and then what in the world would you do?”

Twelve years later, that’s an even more pertinent question for anyone running in Detroit. Given the monumental crisis at hand, what in the world would they plan to do?