Detroit voters bust myths, but what happens next?

Jack Lessenbury.
Jack Lessenbury.

DETROIT — Myth No. 1: Everyone knows that Detroiters are deeply biased against anyone who is not one of them, which means anyone who lives outside the city, and especially anyone who is white.

Myth No. 2: Detroiters are fundamentally ignorant and largely illiterate, and would rather suffer in their murderous hellhole of a city than give up any amount of political control.

Many people have long believed both of those things. The actions of some of the city’s politicians — the criminal and sexually promiscuous ex-mayor; the disappearing city council president — have helped further the worst stereotypes.

Yet last week, Detroiters went to the polls and, in a stunning result, proved both myths decisively wrong. More than half of those who voted cast write-ins for a candidate who is white, wasn’t on the ballot, and has lived in Detroit barely a year.

Everyone knew that Mike Duggan, previously a longtime resident of the lily-white suburb of Livonia, moved to Detroit just to run for mayor. Yet not only did most voters write his name in, but roughly 85 percent of those who voted spelled his name exactly. Thousands of others of voters wrote things such as “M. Duggan” or “Michael Duggan.”

Voters were not in a mood to be distracted. Local news media had gone crazy a few days before the election, when a new write-in candidate appeared in what was clearly a strategy to confuse voters.

Mike Dugeon, a barber who had never voted, suddenly decided to run as a write-in, after he was led to the city clerk’s office by Charlie LeDuff, a TV reporter for Detroit’s Fox affiliate.

That led to predictions that things would be hopelessly confused, and that there might be a Florida-style recount battle over which write-in votes were legal.

But the voters were far too smart for that. Dugeon the barber got 17 votes, plus around 20 slight misspellings that probably were meant for him.

Mr. Duggan — the original candidate, the 55-year-old former Wayne County prosecutor, deputy county executive, and most recently, head of the Detroit Medical Center — got 44,395 votes.

Ballots were marked “Mike Duggan the whiteman,” and “The White Guy Mike Duggan,” from voters who wanted to make perfectly clear which candidate they preferred.

Sheila Cockrel, a former city council member who has been active in Detroit politics for decades, said: “Voters just want someone who can fix the city. They want the streetlights to come on, they want the cops to come when they are called. That’s all they care about.”

Clearly, they felt Mr. Duggan was best equipped to do that.

The man who may have been most astonished by the primary result was the supposed front-runner, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, 57. Charismatic and well-liked, Mr. Napoleon is a lifelong Detroiter who easily qualified for the ballot.

But he managed to get only 28,352 votes last week. Mr. Duggan beat him in 95 percent of precincts.

Is this an indication of what will happen in the general election? Eight years ago, challenger Freman Hendrix beat the controversial incumbent, Kwame Kilpatrick, in the primary — only to lose to him three months later.

The odds that the general election will be dramatically different seem long, even if the votes for the other primary candidates, none of whom got 6 percent, all go to Mr. Napoleon.

That doesn’t mean that Mr. Duggan couldn’t lose. Nor does it say what kind of mayor he, or Mr. Napoleon, would be.

The city officials who will be elected in November — a mayor and nine council members — will take office Jan. 1, 2014. But they will be largely powerless while emergency manager Kevyn Orr remains at the helm, and while the city’s bankruptcy filing plays out in federal court.

However, by October, 2014, the bankruptcy proceedings will be complete, and the new city council will be able to dismiss Mr. Orr.

The question voters, and the news media, need to ask Mr. Duggan and Mr. Napoleon is: What happens then?

How will any new mayor keep the city solvent and yet improve the services that the city needs to prosper?

How can Detroit manage to attract the new capital, jobs, and residents it needs if it hopes to survive and thrive?

Finding the right answers to these questions is probably the most important task that will face whoever wins in November.

What is encouraging is that Detroit voters — so far — seem willing to go outside their traditional comfort zones to find them.

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.

Contact him at: