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In Detroit, a lopsided mayor's race still reveals divisions

Nov 3, 2017

Detroiters will vote for mayor on Tuesday, and first-term incumbent Mike Duggan is expected win re-election handily.

That’s despite his opponent having one of the best-known names in Detroit political history.

And it’s despite Duggan’s time in office exposing some major rifts in a rapidly-changing city.

An outsider with plenty of grassroots support

Peggy Noble is President of the College Park Community Association in northwest Detroit.

It’s not one of your fancier Detroit neighborhoods. Most of the homes are fairly modest. But it’s not what

Peggy Noble, President of the College Park Community Association.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

most would call a “bad” neighborhood, either.

I’m going to have to say, our neighborhood is still pretty stable,” Noble said, standing on the curb outside a neighborhood park on a recent chilly Saturday. "It’s decent.”

Noble was an ardent supporter of Mike Duggan during his first campaign for mayor.

It was partly due to people like Noble that Duggan, a longtime political operative and former Detroit Medical Center CEO who spent most of his life in suburban Livonia, managed to win so much grassroots support.

“I had him out to different corners, introducing him to the neighborhood, folks that didn’t know anything about him," Noble said, "and it’s all history now.”

It’s not exactly history, though, because Duggan is running for a second term. Noble thinks he’s doing “a wonderful job.”

She says Duggan needs more time to really bring things back, but, “we have lights now,” Noble said. “The streets are being cleaned. Trash is being picked up. Houses are being boarded up [and] demolished.”

That was basically Duggan’s pitch to voters during the election’s one and only mayoral debate last month.

“We’ve turned on 65,000 lights, knocked down 13,000 homes, bought 200 buses, cut police and fire response time in half, and put 20,000 Detroiters back to work,” Duggan said during his opening statement.

Duggan points to greatly improved basic services during his term, which also coincides with Detroit emerging from the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy.

Coleman Young II, left, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had one debate during the campaign.
Credit WDIV

“I know the job’s not done, but if you give me one more term, I’ll do everything I can to build one Detroit for all of us,” Duggan said.

A young challenger with a well-known name

But Duggan’s opponent isn’t shy about calling him out on anything, especially that “one Detroit” statement.

Coleman Young II is a 35-year-old state senator from Detroit.

He’s the son of Coleman Alexander Young, Detroit’s charismatic and controversial five-term mayor (1973-1994), whose legacy still looms large over the city’s landscape.

In his opening pitch to voters during the debate, Young II used this now cliché literary allusion to describe today’s Detroit:

"Detroit is a tale of two cities. It’s the best of times for those who are privileged, and the worst of times for everybody else.”

When the elder Coleman Young became Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, it was still a majority-white city.

Now, Coleman Young II is fighting to unseat the city’s first white mayor since then, in a city that’s 80% African American.

But Young’s appeal doesn’t just target black voters.

Rather, it targets the many Detroiters feeling left out and left behind by the city’s much-touted post-bankruptcy “revival.”

“I’m running for mayor for the people who had their water shut off, for the people who lost their houses due to foreclosure,” said Young.

That’s a sore spot for his rival. Since Duggan became mayor in 2014, more than 100,000 Detroit families have experienced water shutoffs or property tax foreclosure.

And while Duggan has taken some steps to address both crises, there’s a widespread sense that he hasn’t thrown his weight around on them like he has on other issues—much less made a concerted effort to really put a stop to them.

Despite continued efforts on many sides, activists haven’t been able to get any kind of “affordability-based” plan to address these chronic issues from the Duggan administration.

A starkly divided future?

Maureen Taylor heads the Detroit-based Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.

She works with that “other Detroit” Young talks about—the chronically poor, sick, daily-struggle-to-survive Detroit. That’s still around 40% of the city’s population.

Taylor takes phone calls from desperate people all the time. One recent call was from a woman who said she and her brother are living with their water shut off.

“What she explained was [that] her water has been off a week, and that she lives in the house with her brother who is HIV-positive," Taylor explained.

Maureen Taylor, at work at the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Taylor says the woman listed a litany of her own health problems, and said she had been cut off Social Security disability benefits. So she and her brother survive off his benefits: about $700 a month.

The total amount of her water bill that was due? "She said her water bill is $2700-plus,” Taylor said.

Taylor says this is a common story in this “other Detroit,” and things are only getting worse. She thinks in the next ten years or so, the differences will just grow starker.

Taylor sees portions of Detroit becoming a kind of “luxury destination,” a tourist hotspot for people cruising the Great Lakes.

“And those luxury lines will pull over, and rich people will get off, and come to wherever it is they’re supposed to come to,” Taylor said, “and we’ll be selling whatever trinkets there are. But they’ll hire the locals to add atmosphere.”

But those poor Detroiters aren’t the ones most likely to show up at the polls next Tuesday, and the fault lines in today’s Detroit are more complex than they were back in the 1970s.

As a result, all the political headwinds strongly favor Duggan winning a second term.