Detroit’s disappointing mayoral campaign

Oct 29, 2013

We are a week away from what has been the strangest, perhaps most important, and most disappointing mayoral election in the history of Detroit. As nearly everyone knows, Detroit is under an emergency manager, and going through bankruptcy proceedings.

Whomever is elected will be largely a figurehead till the emergency manager leaves, something unlikely to happen until next fall, or later. But when Kevyn Orr does say goodbye, the new mayor will take over leadership of a city that may be shorn of debt, but which will need to get on its feet, fast.

Detroit will still be desperately poor. It cannot expect much new help from either the state or federal governments. Nor is anybody likely to lend Detroit any more money in the foreseeable future.

What Detroit has to do is find a way to serve its citizens and stay solvent. While no one man or woman can do that alone, the citizens have a right to expect the candidates for the city’s top job to tell them how they’d hope to accomplish that.

There’s been very little of that in this campaign. The big story has been the astonishing rise of Mike Duggan, a fixture in Wayne County politics who moved to the city last year in order to run for mayor. Duggan has a history of success as a turnaround artist who took both SMART, the suburban bus system, and the Detroit Medical Center, and made them work better.

Work better and get control of their finances.

Detroiters are desperate for a better quality of life, and more than half the voters wrote in his name on the primary ballot. He has gotten all the key editorial endorsements and is the overwhelming favorite to win. Yet he has said annoyingly little about what he would do as mayor, and at times has pandered shamelessly.

Duggan has said an emergency manager wasn’t needed and that the city shouldn‘t be filing for bankruptcy. Given his sophistication, it‘s hard to think he really believes this.

Duggan has also opposed having the state take over Belle Isle, and has spoken against privatizing services -- like the street lighting authority -- that Detroit can no longer possibly afford to run. Still, he has said he would cooperate with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.  

His opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, has indicated he is unwilling to do even that.  Napoleon maintains having an emergency manager is unconstitutional. He has dismayingly injected an undercurrent of race into the contest, telling Detroiters they can’t afford to go “backward” on civil rights. Which is exactly what voting for a candidate based on their color would be.

Detroit, even in a best case scenario, has a long hard slog ahead. When Winston Churchill took over leadership of Great Britain at the worst point of World War II, he told the nation he could promise only “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”  Today, we remember his greatness.

Richard Nixon was elected President promising a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. He had no plan, and the war went on for years. Today’s candidates for mayor of Detroit might do well to consider which of these two men is better remembered by history.  

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.