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Debate and disgrace in Detroit

Oct 26, 2017

To his credit, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan agreed this summer to a single televised debate with State Senator Coleman Young II, who ran far behind in the August primary.

Duggan, in fact, got more than two-thirds of the vote in a seven-candidate field. Many cities don’t even hold a runoff when one candidate gets a majority in a primary. Other Detroit mayors in similar positions have refused to debate their opponents. But Duggan did.

This was both magnanimous and smart on his part. While he likely could have won easily without a debate, he could have been accused of hiding from the people. His opponent, who for many years was known as Joel Loving, had a philosophical and strategic choice to make.

Young could have chosen to run a campaign for the future. He could have been warm and witty and raised questions about Duggan’s failure so far to spread Detroit’s recovery to many of the neighborhoods, and proposed some intriguing ways to do so. Had he done that, he might have turned some heads, and maybe increased his primary showing.

There used to be a saying in the South that you run once to get known, and the second time to get elected. Unfortunately, Coleman Young instead descended into a bitter, nasty slashing attack that strongly implied that the mayor was a criminal.

When a provoked Duggan noted correctly that his challenger has missed more votes than anyone in the state Senate, Young retorted that the mayor has no right to criticize him when “we don’t even know whether he is going to jail after this debate is over.”

That is a totally unwarranted statement.

There are not now and have never been any charges filed against the mayor, though nobody doubts Mike Duggan is willing to play hardball politics if someone gets in his way.

Coleman Young went on to claim falsely that Duggan had admitted to bid rigging on television, and in an utterly disgraceful low point, proclaimed “it’s time to take back the motherland for the people,” something you might expect to hear at a white supremacist rally.

State Sen. Coleman Young II and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, during their debate broadcast from WDIV-TV's Detroit studios.
Credit WDIV

My guess is that this may stir up some ancient hatreds, but not enough to make any difference in the outcome. But I couldn’t help remember the first time Detroit had a mayoral election and a candidate named Coleman Young.

In that race, 44 years ago, there was also a campaign based on blatant appeals to racism. But in that election, the racist was a white cop named John Nichols, not his black challenger. History, Karl Marx once said, does repeat itself, the second time as farce.

There’s another path the second Coleman Young could have followed this year.

Long ago, when I was a student in East Lansing, a young underdog named Bob Carr took on an entrenched Republican incumbent in a hopeless race for Congress. Carr ran a brilliant campaign – and lost.

History, Karl Marx once said, does repeat itself, the second time as farce.

But instead of losing by the expected landslide, he got more than 49% of the vote, energized people, and two years later went to Congress, where he stayed almost 20 years.

Detroit would have been better served had the challenger given Duggan that kind of race this year. Ironically, in the long run, it would also have been better for Coleman Young.