Detroit Mayoral Field Whittled to Two

Benny Napoleon, a county sheriff, and Mike Duggan, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, will face off in November.

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Jarrad Henderson/Detroit Free Press/AP

Detroit’s financials may be falling apart, but its municipal democracy struggled to stay intact Tuesday as Motor City voters went to the polls for the mayoral primary.

With 100% of precincts reporting at 4:16 am, the winners of the primary appear to be Benny Napoleon, the county sheriff, and Mike Duggan, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center.  Both will now face off in the general election in November.

Despite rain, jammed voting machines, and the fact that Detroit recently became the largest US municipality ever to file for bankruptcy, voter turnout exceeded city officials’ expectations. Director of Elections Daniel Baxter predicted 17% turnout as the precincts closed, which matched figures from 2009. Vote counters were up late processing a record number of write-in votes, and final counts are not expected for a few days.

Fourteen candidates were on the ballot and two ran as write-ins. The large pool of contenders seemed strange given what the title of Detroit Mayor now entails. Whoever comes out on top of November’s general election will be unable to exert any control over the city’s finances, will be charged with managing a limping civic system $18 billion in debt and will occupy a seat held previously by extortionists and tax evaders.

Sheriff Napoleon of Wayne County, one of yesterday’s apparent victors, appears eager to fill the seat anyway, having highlighted his local roots as an asset. A public servant with thirty-eight years of experience—six spent as Detroit’s Chief of Police—he says he wants to focus on basic municipal services to get the city up and running. In an interview with local TV last month, Napoleon said he plans to put a police officer in every square mile of Detroit to focus on quality of life issues. However, he also wants the city’s 700,000 residents to be realistic about what their government can provide. “The leadership has to be strong enough to look Detroiters in the face and say, ‘There are some things that you’ve been used to this city doing that we quite frankly can’t do anymore,'” he said. “And they have to trust that person when they say it. Detroiters trust me.”

The other of the primary’s likely winners faced significant challenges during his primary campaign. Duggan, by far the contest’s most successful fundraiser, was disqualified from the official ballot in June because he filed to run two weeks before he had lived in Detroit for a full year. Undaunted, Duggan launched a massive campaign for a write-in bid. Though he would be the first white mayor of Detroit since 1974 if elected, Duggan has demonstrated a willingness to cross racial boundaries. Among many others, his endorsements included Detroit New Black Panther Party leader Malik Shabazz.

Detroit Primary Bankruptcy

Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/AP

But Duggan’s chances were complicated again two weeks ago when a man named Mike Dugeon, a barber from Big D’s Barber Shop on Detroit’s west side, decided that he wanted to run as a write-in candidate as well. Dugeon spent most of the pre-primary election season joking with friends about similarities between his and Duggan’s names. Duggan told reporters that he thought Dugeon was encouraged to run by Napoleon in an attempt to siphon votes. Napoleon responded, “Mike needs to man up and take accountability for his campaign and quit whining and be a man.”

Yesterday’s mayoral ballot also included a businessman who has already run three unsuccessful campaigns for the position, a Trotskyist, current and former state legislators and an ordained minister.  The wide variety of low budget, community-driven contenders were not discouraged by their hometown’s hard times. They all said they saw the city’s challenges as opportunities for new blood, aggressive tactics and grassroots growth. All are hoping that in long-suffering Motown there’s nowhere to go but up.