When Mayor Mike Duggan and Sen. Coleman Young II meet tonight for their first and only debate during what has been a relatively boring campaign so far (excepting a few moderately interesting twists here and there), there is likely to be a yawning gap between what most voters desperately want to see and what they get.
What most voters tuning in would probably like to see is a substantive debate tackling the myriad serious issues that continue to confront their city, despite the undeniable progress that has been made so far. They will want to hear more about what is being planned for the neighborhoods, and what has already been done or is currently in process. They will want to hear about what the mayor’s office can do to lend a much-needed hand in repairing Detroit’s tattered public school system and to prepare the young people in those schools for the world that awaits them. Not the next generation of students, but the students who are in those schools right now. And they will want to hear more about jobs, and how they can keep from losing their homes, and what is being done to keep their streets safe with a ranking that saddles us with the third highest per capita murder rate in the country (45.2 per 100,000 residents) behind St. Louis (59.3 per 100,000) and Baltimore (51.2 per 100,000). For the record, despite the screaming national headlines about Chicago (27.9 per 100,000), Detroit is far worse.
So that’s what most viewers hope they will see, because these issues are what matter to them the most. But is it what we can honestly expect?
Hopefully the panel of moderators will manage to keep everything on track, so we shall see.
Chances are it will be Duggan who presents himself as the candidate on the High Road because his huge lead in the polls and in fundraising makes it easy for him to take that stance. Duggan won’t be slinging any mud, not because he doesn’t know how but because he doesn’t need to.
But Young needs to draw blood, a lot of it, and this is his best and biggest chance to cripple his opponent in front of a large viewing audience. That means going for the jugular. A recently-released television ad sponsored by Young’s campaign team makes it clear that the race card will almost certainly be deployed to slice that jugular open – or try to. By trying to portray Duggan as a privileged but corrupt white man who is only escaping the same fate as Kwame Kilpatrick because of his powerful friends and the color of his skin, Young hopes to stir up his base with a reliably potent approach in a predominantly black and poor city.
“Kwame Kilpatrick went to prison for rigging city contracts. So what’s the difference between him and Mike Duggan, who also admitted to rigging city contracts?” asks the ad, which ends with, “Why does Duggan get a pass, while Kwame Kilpatrick goes to jail for 28 years? It’s as simple as black and white.”
Actually it’s not, but that’s beside the point. The point is to draw blood however blood can be drawn, and Young obviously believes race relations is a weakness in Duggan’s flank. He also believes his father’s name is worth its weight in gold, which is why he announced his campaign earlier this year in front of an oversized picture of the late Mayor Coleman Young.
But Young’s most potent weapon in his arsenal isn’t likely to be race, nor the memory of his father. It will be Detroit’s entrenched poverty, and expect him to lean on that issue most heavily, posing himself as the defender of the poor, black, and forgotten.
“I want to put the citizens of Detroit back to work, and when I say that, I mean the neighborhoods,” Young was quoted as saying during his February 24 mayoral campaign announcement by The Detroit Free Press. “Right now, 40 percent of the city of Detroit is living in poverty. That is not acceptable. I know a lot of people are talking about turning the lights on, but what’s the purpose of turning the lights on outside your house if people can’t turn the lights on inside the house? …We need change. What is the purpose of having power if you don’t serve the powerless? What is the purpose of creating jobs downtown if you don’t provide jobs for the residents who need it? What is the purpose of having a water authority if you cannot provide to those who are thirsty and (people) have their water shut off?
“There is no reason why in a town where billions of dollars are being invested, we have citizens who are poor, hungry and begging. … That is not right.”
No, it’s not. But anyone who knows Duggan knows this angle of attack is not enough to scare him off or even trip him up. Duggan is an extremely skilled political operative with considerably more experience in the trenches than Young. He rarely shows up at a confrontation unprepared, so expect him to unleash every available statistic and program detailing what has already been done and what is already in the works, effectively shutting down each and every criticism Young throws his way. At least, that will be the plan.
But plans, as we all know, don’t always go according to plan.