Detroit mayoral primary field surprisingly numerous


DETROIT — Think about this: Detroit is a city in which power is held by a bankruptcy lawyer from Maryland.

That man, Kevyn Orr, wants to get the city into federal court, where he and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes will make the major decisions that will determine the city’s future.

Not only was neither of those two men elected — Mr. Orr was appointed as emergency manager by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder — most Detroiters never heard of either of them until recently.

Jack Lessenbury
Jack Lessenbury

Detroit’s elected leaders are still in place, but they have no power. Mayor Dave Bing and the six remaining City Council members have no more than a figurehead — or at best advisory — status.

After Mr. Orr was named in March, one council member quit, a second resigned to work for Mr. Orr, and council President Charles Pugh disappeared. It seems nobody in Detroit knows where he is.

The mayor and those on the job still get salaries, but only because Mr. Orr decided to pay them. Nobody knows when things will return to normal.

So given all this, who would want to be the next mayor of Detroit? Believe it or not, lots of people.

When Detroit voters go to the polls in the Aug. 6 primary, they’ll see 14 names on the ballot — and the man many think is most likely to be the city’s next mayor isn’t listed.

Mike Duggan, a 55-year-old former Wayne County prosecutor and political boss, and head of the Detroit Medical Center, was tossed off the ballot on a technicality last month. Now he is waging a furious and expensive write-in campaign. Though winning a write-in vote is a challenge, two major polls indicate he has a chance.

Most experts think Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is certain to get one of the slots in the general election. Mr. Duggan aims to qualify for the second one.

Whether he can get there is problematic. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office says a write-in vote doesn’t have to spell the candidate’s name correctly, but “voter intent” has to be clear.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers has the final say on disputed votes. If the contest is close, there could be a nightmare scenario in which votes are challenged — a flashback to the infamous 2000 Florida presidential election recount.

Nevertheless, two candidates will face off on Nov. 5. The winner will take office on New Year’s Day.

And what will the new mayor do then? Sadly, not much.

The emergency manager will be in command until at least October, 2014. After that, Mr. Orr could be fired, and normal democracy reinstated, if at least six of the nine city council members who will be elected this November decide to do that. Yet even then, any mayor is apt to have limited powers.

Nobody knows how long the bankruptcy process will take. Mr. Orr thinks it could be completed in a little over a year, though some think it could take much longer than that.

Eventually, Detroit will emerge from bankruptcy. But what then? How will whoever is running this once-mighty metropolis point the battered city on the path to a brighter future? That is what the fall campaign should be about.

Detroit presumably will emerge from bankruptcy shorn of most or all of its staggering $19 billion in debt. Yet what does it do next?

The city’s plight is often compared to that of what was, for decades, its biggest company: General Motors. The automaker went through its own near-death experience in 2009. Today, it is lean, healthy, and roaring back, posting a $4.9 billion profit last year.

But there is a major difference between GM and Detroit. When the automaker emerged from bankruptcy, it had things to sell that millions of people wanted to buy: cars and trucks.

Post-bankruptcy Detroit may become a city with a clean balance sheet. But it still will be a city with tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, a population largely of poor and undereducated people, and a dysfunctional public school system.

Depending on how bankruptcy plays out, Detroit may have even fewer assets than it does now. The iconic Detroit Institute of Arts could be forced to sell its treasures.

The city that emerges from bankruptcy likely will have most or all of the problems it had before. What does seem clear is that it will be unable to borrow money.

Some brave souls — a mayor and nine city council members — eventually will be left on their own, in charge of keeping Detroit solvent and leading it to a prosperous future.

They are going to have to be brave and wise souls, indeed.

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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