Who wants to be mayor of Detroit?

City finances are under state control, but two candidates with their own issues vie for spot sitting mayor doesn't want

Graffiti on an abandoned office building in downtown Detroit.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

DETROIT – Christian Fuller had a lifestyle decision to make earlier this year as he looked for a new place to rent; move out of Detroit, where he had lived just east of downtown for years, or stay in the city?

The 45-year-old entertainment attorney opted for a 1,500-square foot apartment in Corktown, a popular neighborhood in the throes of a burst of gentrification.

“There is going to be a belt right around downtown Detroit, where more and more businesses and living spaces develop,” said Fuller, who pays a meager $900 a month for his space.

Fuller would like to know who will be at the wheel, guiding the city to this optimistic future, and the looming election for mayor in November won’t make it much clearer. The city’s infrastructure is sagging, crime and corruption remain high, and, as a final kick in the butt, it filed for bankruptcy in July and its major spending decisions are now handled by a state-appointed emergency financial manager.

All of this begs the question: Who would want to be mayor of the nation’s punch line?

The answer, it seems, is a pair of candidates whose trajectories may need as much of a recovery as the city they hope to oversee. It certainly isn’t sitting Mayor Dave Bing, who announced in May he would not seek re-election.

The campaign has the look and feel of any other mayoral race in a major U.S. city. Candidates Benny Napoleon and Mike Duggan will raise and spend millions before the Nov. 5 election in pursuit of an office some blame for being part of the city’s storied economic hardships.

But the outcome may not matter much.

“Whoever is elected mayor will not have any power right away,” said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “He will have to wait and see how quickly the city can emerge.”

If a mayor can get you in, a good mayor
can get us out.

Yes, said east side resident Karyn Brown, but right out of the box, the new mayor will have to work closely with the city’s financial manager.

“It’s the only way the next mayor will have any success,” said Brown, 48, who is unemployed. “And one person can’t do it; the mayor, the financial manager. “

Clean-up plans

Detroit, a city of 700,000 marked by entire blocks of decrepit, boarded-up building and littered open lots, now tops the list of distressed financial metropolises in American history, which began with New York’s financial ruin in 1975, was carried on by Philadelphia’s meltdown in 1991 and moved over to Washington, D.C., in the mid ’90s.

While it's true that the mayoral victor will have limited power at first, he will be a figurehead regardless, someone people will look to immediately to do something, said Ralphe Armstrong, 56, a musician who lives downtown.

He blames the city's current administration for a lot of the problems going on right now, and said, "if a mayor can get you in, a good mayor can get us out."

"The new mayor can get to Washington, D.C., and get us the help we need to rebuild the core of our neighborhoods, get some police on the street," Armstrong added. "And whoever it is can do that."

Mike Duggan (left) and Benny Napoleon (right) are focusing on public safety in their Detroit mayoral bids.

Duggan comes to the ballot as a fix-it guy; the former elected prosecutor in Wayne County is also the man who for the last nine years has worked to turn around the money-losing Detroit Medical Center. So far, so good, although sustained success is still a question.  

Napoleon is a law enforcement official who moved through the ranks as a Detroit police patrol officer in the mid-70s to chief, then to the elected position of Wayne County sheriff.

Both candidates have established a priority on law enforcement out of the gate, mutually embracing the “broken windows” approach made popular by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the mid-‘90s and by Mayor Anthony Williams as he worked to gentrify Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s.

Both Duggan and Napoleon declined requests for interviews from Al Jazeera.

“I took that position (prosecutor in Wayne County) on quality of life and filed more than 1,000 related cases,” which were upheld at the appellate level numerous times, Duggan said in a recent radio interview.

He said there are resources for enforcement and criticized current city leaders for failing to address the massive code violations that have played a part in the decrepit state of so many properties in Detroit.

Napoleon, meanwhile, is proposing a “One Square Mile Initiative,” which would place a Detroit police officer in each of the city's 138 square miles.

“We’re going to make sure abandoned cars are gone, we’re going to make sure the blight is cleaned up, we’re going to make sure businesses that don’t pick up their trash and that don’t mow their grass, don’t get rid of graffiti, do it,” Napoleon said in a July interview with a local television station. “We’re going to make sure people are good neighbors. If they’re not, they’re going to get a knock on the door from this one-square-mile officer.”

Personal baggage

The campaign promises, regardless of whether they become reality, would be a big change in Detroit, which has ranked on various “most dangerous” lists since the ’70s.

“They did the right thing in talking about this right off,” said Mark Funkhouser, former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., and director of the Governing Institute. “Before anything, a city has to be safe for people to want to live there or shop there. Even if it isn’t safe, it has to look safe.”

While they have the safety platforms covered, it is Detroit and there is always political dirt to dish. If the race gets nasty, both candidates have some problems.

For Duggan, it’s his role as deputy executive and right hand man to former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, who was dogged in the twilight of his 15-year tenure by allegations of giving construction contracts to pals and family. One former McNamara aide was sentenced to 44 months in prison on charges related to an airport contract. Duggan has reportedly not been accused of wrongdoing or been the subject of any investigation.

For Napoleon, it’s the current FBI investigation into a contract between his office and a prisoner-tethering company with ties to his donors and associates. Napoleon has denied any favoritism in the deal making.

Whoever wins will have to absorb witty roundhouses delivered by late night comics and satirists, if not any actual say in how the city is run. Not that it makes a dent in the city’s self-image.

“National perception doesn’t have any role in this mayor’s race,” said political consultant Eric Foster, who served as deputy campaign manager in 2009 to sitting Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. “Detroit has this insular feel, and we tend to be unwilling to be influenced by the national perspective of ‘what’s wrong with Detroit?’“

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