Duggan vs. Napoleon: In Detroit mayor's race, one candidate has big cash and a big lead

Nov 4, 2013

Mike Duggan, left, and Benny Napoleon during the final Detroit mayoral debate.
Mike Duggan, left, and Benny Napoleon during the final Detroit mayoral debate.
Credit via WXYZ TV

Detroiters elect a new mayor on Tuesday.

If the polls are to be believed, the race between Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon isn’t even close.

But that hasn’t stopped the race from getting expensive—or nasty.

The frontrunner, Duggan, wasn’t even on the primary ballot.

He was thrown off over a technicality because he hadn’t lived in Detroit for a full year before filing his ballot petitions.

But Duggan surprised many by winning handily as a write-in candidate. Since then his campaign has seemingly been on cruise control.

In most polls, he has a commanding two-to-one lead over rival Benny Napoleon. He’s raised record amounts of money, more than $3 million in all, with lots of help from Detroit’s business community.

That money cushion has allowed Duggan to run lots of ads (like this one) touting his accomplishments at his most recent job, as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center.

Duggan cut his teeth in politics as a top lieutenant in former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara’s administration, but he talks more about his tenure at the DMC.

Duggan says his record qualifies him as a turnaround specialist, and he says that’s exactly what Detroit needs right now.

“This is the advantage of having a candidate for mayor who has lived through turnarounds and near bankruptcy before,” Duggan said at the final mayoral debate last week. “Just as I did at DMC, I’d love to pull this community together, and bring this city back.”

That comment provoked a sharp retort from his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.

“The turnaround at the DMC is a fallacy,” Napoleon insisted.

After finishing a distant second to Duggan in the primary, Napoleon has run a pretty anemic campaign.

But he’s ratcheted up the attacks on Duggan’s record in the last week of the campaign.

Napoleon hasn’t had nearly the type of fundraising success that Duggan put together. But he’s used Duggan’s strong ties to the corporate community against him, and also pounced on Duggan’s ties to the state officials who appointed Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

“It is very clear that there was a conspiracy. There was never, ever any intention of doing anything other than sending Kevyn Orr in,” Napoleon said. “And quite frankly my opponent was a big part of that.”

That theme of a state conspiracy to take Detroit into bankruptcy resonates with many Napoleon supporters. Some of them packed an east side Detroit church for a pre-election rally recently. They heard about one theme over and over, that Napoleon will fight off those from the outside who have seized control of Detroit. One speaker even mentioned the “evil spirits from Lansing” who’ve “taken control of the land.”

Incredible as that may sound, Napoleon supporter Cle Sims thinks it’s about right.

“I’m here to support Benny Napoleon. I’m NOT here to support Rick Snyder,” Sims said. “Which I believe that what’s the guy’s name…Duggan?...is Rick Snyder’s appointed appointee.”

Just to be clear, Duggan is on record opposing emergency manager Kevyn Orr and the bankruptcy.

But much more than Napoleon, Duggan says he’ll insert himself into that process as mayor. He says he might even be able to convince Governor Snyder to send Orr packing.

“I don’t know whether we can get Kevyn Orr out before September. But I’m going to work every day, in a positive, constructive way, to shorten that stay,” Duggan said.

And that highlights a certain irony to this mayor’s race.

Whoever gets elected will be virtually powerless to start. But he’ll end up guiding the city through one of the most critical periods in its history.