Will Duggan's write-in campagin work in Detroit?

Jul 1, 2013

For the last year, former Detroit Medical System czar and long-time Wayne County political fixer Mike Duggan has been gearing up to run for mayor of Detroit.

The 55-year-old candidate was seen by many movers and shakers, both black and white, as perhaps the one politician who could actually run the city, once it emerges from control by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

But Duggan’s candidacy was derailed when a circuit judge ruled him off the August primary ballot because of an odd technicality.

Though Duggan easily met the residency requirement before the filing deadline, the judge said he turned in his signatures too early. When a Michigan Court of Appeals panel refused to overrule that decision, Duggan decided to end his campaign.

But now, he’s had second thoughts, and has launched a write-in campaign for the August 6th primary. He doesn’t have to finish first. In fact, his people virtually concede Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon will do that. But if Duggan can get enough write-ins to place second, then he makes the runoff. And his name would be printed on the ballot in November.

His strategists calculate that he can get there with as few as twenty thousand write-ins. Though there will be more than a dozen other candidates on the ballot, most are little known.

Yet waging a successful write-in drive will be very hard.  Duggan needs only to ask Nancy Cassis about that. Last year, after former Congressman Thaddeus McCotter failed to qualify, some establishment Republicans panicked.

The only name left on their ballot was that of the Tea Party’s Kerry Bentivolio. Mainstream Republicans got former State Senator Cassis to wage a write-in effort. But she lost, two to one.

Duggan might counter that he only has to finish second in a fairly weak field. That’s true.  But he also faces challenges Cassis didn’t have. For one thing, Detroit voters may not be as well-informed as those in a suburban Republican primary.

According to one study, as many as forty-seven percent of adults in the city may be substantially illiterate. That figure has been disputed. But what it a voter fails to write his full name in? What if they spell Duggan wrong?

The Michigan Secretary of State’s office oversees elections in this state. I asked the department’s Fred Woodhams about this.

He said the name doesn’t have to be exact, but “the intent of the voter needs to be clear.” But if there is some doubt, who gets to decide? The Wayne County Board of Canvassers.

Well, that sounds fine in theory. But perennial candidate Tom Barrow has made it clear he intends to fight Duggan’s candidacy in any way possible. If the election is close, you can bet whoever is in competition with Duggan will challenge every vote.

This could lead to Detroit resembling the Florida recount after the two thousand election, with one big difference. This race has to be settled in time for the November runoff.

Can you say, “nightmare scenario?” The one thing every candidate agrees on is that Detroit needs a strong, capable mayor with enough public support to make the case that it is time for the Emergency Manager to leave.

Based on what I see ahead, don’t hold your breath.

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