Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Detroit’s mayoral race shapes up to be complicated

DETROIT — Two things seemed clear a month ago: First, this year’s Detroit mayoral race would come down to Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon — a man famous for running organizations versus a popular county sheriff and former police chief.

Second, most members of Detroit’s higher-end business and professional community, white and black, were backing the 55-year-old Mr. Duggan. After a long career as deputy Wayne County executive and then county prosecutor, Mr. Duggan is best known for turning around the finances of the troubled Detroit Medical Center as its chief executive.

Supporters felt, as longtime Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel said, that Mr. Duggan was the one man with the vision and the practical know-how to lead, once Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr leaves and turns control of the city back to its elected officials, sometime after October, 2014.

Then, unexpectedly, Mr. Duggan was thrown off the ballot on a technicality. Election rules said he had to have lived in Detroit for at least a year before he filed signatures to run for mayor.

He seemed to have his bases covered. Mr. Duggan, who has lived most of his life in the Wayne County suburb of Livonia, bought a home in Detroit and registered to vote on April 16, 2012.

The filing deadline was May 14. But Mr. Duggan turned his signatures in April 2. Tom Barrow, a perennial candidate, filed a lawsuit charging Mr. Duggan was ineligible to run.

To Mr. Duggan’s shock, a Wayne County judge ruled against him. A Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. Mr. Duggan declined to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, and ended his campaign.

At first, he pooh-poohed the suggestion of a write-in campaign. But then he changed his mind.

Saying he was heartened by a large outpouring of sentiment from people who felt he had been robbed, Mr. Duggan said he would throw himself into a write-in effort.

“If the voters think it should be me, I’m going to go out and campaign as hard as I can,” he told supporters and the reporters.

But can he do it? That would seem extremely difficult.

Last year, after former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia failed to qualify for the ballot, many conventional Republicans were horrified. The only name on their primary ballot was that of Kerry Bentivolio, an extreme Tea Party supporter with a record of financial difficulties and a questionable professional background.

The GOP backed a primary write-in campaign for state Sen. Nancy Cassis. Though the drive was well-funded and well-publicized, she lost 2-1. Mr. Bentivolio went on to win the seat.

Mr. Duggan’s supporters point out that he doesn’t have to come in first as a write-in primary candidate. They essentially concede that Mr. Napoleon is bound to lead the field. All Mr. Duggan has to do is finish second in the August voting.

If he can do that, he will be on the ballot in November, and the election will be a whole new ball game. But even that won’t be easy.

Though most of the other candidates are little known, three may have voter appeal: former state Rep. Lisa Howze and current state Rep. Fred Durhal, both Democrats, and Mr. Barrow, who made it to the general election for Detroit mayor three times. Mr. Barrow lost all those elections — 1985, 1989, and 2009.

In the 1990s, Mr. Barrow did a stretch in federal prison for tax evasion, a conviction he has been fighting to get overturned.

The Barrow name is familiar to Detroiters. That may give him a distinct advantage over Mr. Duggan, who has to depend on voters remembering to write in his name.

Mr. Duggan faces other problems. One study has concluded that as many as 47 percent of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate. Though that number is disputed, there is no question that literacy rates are a problem, and that may hamper write-in efforts.

And what if voters write in Mr. Duggan’s name but don’t spell it correctly? Fred Woodhams of the election division of the Michigan Secretary of State’s office said: “The name doesn’t have to be correct, but the intent of the voter has to be clear.”

But what if some think it isn’t? In that case, Mr. Woodhams said, “the Wayne County Board of Canvassers would determine whether a write-in vote counted.”

Mr. Barrow and perhaps other candidates are bound to challenge every write-in vote, especially if the overall result is close. That could turn Detroit into a replica of the 2000 Florida presidential recount, and virtually paralyze the vote process just weeks before the Nov. 5 general election.

Nobody knows how all this will play out. When it comes to Detroit, nothing seems to be easy.

In the print version of this column last week, I said that no incumbent Michigan governor has been defeated since the present state constitution was adopted in 1963. Indeed, none has been defeated running for a second term. However, Gov. James Blanchard narrowly lost his bid for a third term in 1990.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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