Like the battle of Armageddon, the campaigns of the various candidates seeking to be Detroit’s next mayor are lining up support, building political ammunition with zest and ready to duke it out in what is to become the most hotly contested mayoral race in decades.
It’s political show time in Detroit this summer as the battle for the next leadership of a city in transition is decided by voters after listening to those who say they can steer the city ship safely to shore.
Because for the first time in many years a White candidate, Mike Duggan, former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, with an expected unmatched campaign war chest, stands the chance of taking up residence in the Manoogian Mansion.
Because an alternative candidate Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County Sheriff with strong name recognition in Detroit, also stands the chance of becoming mayor of a city he once served as chief of police.
A recent poll showed these two candidates leading other contenders, including State. Reps. Fred Durhal and Lisa Howze.
This election, with all of the makings of an epic political story as Detroit writes another chapter in its future, is also about the community crusaders, business ambassadors and political spokespersons who will be negotiating on behalf of the candidates.
And so far for each of the candidates or would-be candidates, we are seeing or hearing familiar names in the political corridors of power in Detroit as individuals who are either deciding or have already made up their minds about who to support in this mayoral election.
For example, when Napoleon announced his exploratory committee a few weeks back, an army of ministers with a long track record of political activism in Detroit, joined him at the press conference, including Rev. Kenneth Flowers. But it was also a show of allegiance to Napoleon’s father, who is a minister, while underscoring the sheriff’s deep roots.
And most notable in that array of supporters for Napoleon is Greg Mathis, the nationally acclaimed TV judge whose story of growing out of the trenches of Detroit to becoming an internationally renowned African American leader will come to bear on the campaign.
Mathis will bring with him his financial largesse, celebrity, strongly opinions and the broad respect he has across Detroit and the country.
Mathis is upbeat about the campaign and when you talk with him he seems ready for the political showdown this summer.
Another supporter of Napoleon is UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, a vocal voice on labor issues in Detroit who told the Detroit News that there was no question he would be supporting Napoleon if the sheriff puts his hat in the ring. With Settles strongly behind Napoleon, it signals potential mass support from other labor groups.
For Duggan, who was born and raised on Detroit’s west side and later lived in Livonia until recently moving back into the city, one of his leading ambassadors and top strategists is Conrad Mallett Jr., a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Mallett is a known veteran of the administration of the legendary Mayor Coleman Alexander Young and throughout the years has been at the center of every political movement in Detroit, with a mastery of Detroit politics and helping to orchestrate chapters in Detroit politics including the Kwame Kilpatrick administration.
I ran into him at a reception over the weekend and he confidently made it clear to me that he was on the winning side and that this election will show the difference between Duggan and Napoleon if it sticks to the issues and not race politics.
Duggan also has Bryan Barnhill, the 26-year-old brilliant former chief of staff to Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh. The Harvard educated Barnhill, who decided to return home after his education from Cambridge, is Duggan’s campaign manager and the connecting link to a pool of young people in Detroit for the campaign.
Barnhill represents the generation that has not been talked to or included fully in Detroit politics since the Kilpatrick era. The young professional class returning to Detroit is integral to the survival of the city. One need not look far to see how Facebook and Twitter are espousing the power of this professional class.
Rep. Durhal also has been garnering support and among them is Wayne State University Board of Governor’s member Gary Pollard who also was former chief of staff to Wayne County Commissioner Martha Scott during her term as a state senator.
Pollard, a community advocate with broad knowledge of issues, has been beating drums and pounding the pavement for Durhal who brands himself as a turnaround guy because of his work in Highland Park as economic development planner and other urban projects he handled before going to Lansing.
Lisa Howze — the only number cruncher-certified public accountant in the group of candidates running for mayor — has on her team a veteran of the Detroit Police Department and one-time police chief James Barren whose tenure under Mayor Dave Bing was short-lived.
Barren, who is popular on the police force, is advising Howze on crime, an issue that will be at the forefront of the mayoral debates.
Her campaign director is an energetic youth campaigner, Brandon Jessup, who worked on the Obama campaign in Michigan as well as the NAACP and other civil rights campaigns in the state.
Above all else one issue that is sure to fire up this year’s mayoral campaign is Duggan’s candidacy. Can a White candidate who is no stranger to Detroit politics, having served as Wayne County Prosecutor, make a credible claim on the mayorship?
The answer belongs to voters who will be buffeted with messages this summer regarding who to support even as they struggle with basic living standards, a shortage of basic city services and rampant violent crime.
The class divide is also a potential political weapon in this campaign. Napoleon alluded to it when his remarks about Detroit’s upscale Palmer Woods not being a part of Detroit went viral and grabbed everyone’s attention instantly about the mayor’s race.
The Wayne County Sheriff later said the issue wasn’t about excluding Palmer Woods but, rather, underscoring the mass underclass in Detroit whose experience is different from those who live in affluent neighborhoods across the city.
Duggan, who moved into Palmer Woods, has conducted more than 40 house meetings so far with residents from mostly impoverished areas of the city, hearing their concerns, needs and challenges.
He said the meetings have been enlightening and the homeowners have been welcoming, for the first time in years seeing a political candidate conducting private meetings in their living rooms about how to improve their lives.
On the other hand, Napoleon has initiated a listening tour, talking to residents about what they want their next mayor to do and the issues that need to be tackled in Detroit.
However, one thing is clear. All of the candidates running for mayor are no strangers to public service. Each has a record — an interesting record — to run on and thus their résumés will be scrutinized by everyone who has a stake in this election. And raising money will be key, with Duggan, a former CEO, expected to have the backing of most of the business leaders.
Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his personal page at www.bankolethompson.com.