By Carol Cain
Can a white candidate running for mayor in a primarily black city — which has elected African American candidates for 40 years — succeed when he is not on the ballot and is waging his write-in campaign against someone with a near-identical name?
Add in the complication of running in a city where nearly half the adults are functionally illiterate — and the challenges are substantial, if not unique.
The town is Detroit and former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan is the candidate who has been slugging his way through a nail biter of a contest kicked off when Mayor Dave Bing announced he would not seek re-election.
Duggan is also a former Wayne County prosecutor and right hand man to the late Wayne County leader Ed McNamara. Long considered a front-runner to become Detroit’s mayor, he left his prominent hospital position to run for the job.
The names that will appear on Detroit’s Aug 6 mayoral ballot are: Tom Barrow, Angelo Brown, D’Artagnan Collier, Krystal Crittendon, State Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., Herman Griffin, Lisa Howze, Willie Lipscomb, Mark Murphy, Benny Napoleon, John Olumba, Sigmunt Szczepkowski, John Telford and Jean Vortkamp.
After a judge removed Duggan’s name from the ballot a few weeks ago due to a filing deadline mistake, the hard-charging candidate decided to switch gears and run as a write-in candidate.
The top two vote getters in the Aug. 6 primary will face off in November’s general election.
Duggan and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon have been leading in the polls.
Tough job ahead
Anyway you slice it, the challenges before the next mayor will be daunting.
The Motor City, now run by a state appointed Emergency Manager because of its fiscal crisis, filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago – the largest municipality ever to do so.
It’s been a steady 60-year decline as Detroit – which put the world on wheels — watched its population shrink from 1.8 million in the 1950s to less than 700,000 today. Like many industrial towns, the city has been devastated by a shrinking tax base, shifting economy and other woes.
Duggan seemed nonplussed as he talked to me about running in a city where 80 percent of residents are African Americans and whose electorate elected black mayoral candidates for four decades.
Roman Gribbs was Detroit’s last white mayor and served from 1970-74.
“I have been in over 175 basements in the city (as I campaigned the past year), meeting with people and listening to them,” he said. “People are far more concerned about what you will do to help make their lives better.”
Duggan also isn’t fazed about waging his bid through a write in campaign which is a tougher path than having your name on the ballot.
That too could be complicated when you consider a purported 47 percent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate, according to a 2011 report by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund and the challenges .
That shocking figure has been cited by many including Roy Roberts, who is leaving his post as Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools.
“It is tragic,” said Roberts, one of the most successful African American auto executives who was lured out of retirement by Gov. Rick Snyder to take over the DPS job 18 months ago, of the illiteracy woes of Detroit.
Roberts’ term ended and he is now being replaced by Jack Martin.
“They cannot qualify for work, cannot help their children with school work,” Roberts said.
“We estimate that approximately 376,000 adults 16 and older in the City of Detroit read at a 6th grade level and below – which makes them not eligible to participate in work training programs, or even to study for the GED exam,” said Margaret Williamson, executive director of Pro-Literacy Detroit.
“Persons who read poorly do not usually vote, hence the low voter turnout during elections,” said Williamson.
Other said the illiteracy issue would not impact this mayoral election.
“It’s a non-factor,” said an African American activist involved with one of the mayoral campaigns. “The people who vote read, and are paying very close attention to this race.”
Indeed, no one I talked to knew of any statistics to indicate how many of those who are illiterate are registered to vote, or do vote.
Things are dicier when it comes to Mike Duggan vs. Mike Dugeon as write in candidates.
Dugeon — a barber who has never voted but shares his name — filed paper work Thursday to run as a write in candidate.
There is concern voters might get confused. And election workers will be the ones to determine voter intent if the names written in are misspelled.
Duggan and his team have spent weeks knocking on doors to make sure people know how to fill out the ballot properly. Now, they’re making sure folks know how to spell his name.
“The challenge is that there is nothing on the ballot to give you direction about how to properly write in a name on the ballot,” said Duggan, which why so many write-in campaigns fail.
“With the millions of dollars that are being pumped into his campaign, it will be very competitive,” former Judge Greg Mathis, of the “Judge Mathis” show and chairman of Napoleon’s mayoral campaign, said of Duggan.
Mathis, born and raised in Detroit, expects both Duggan and Napoleon to win the primary and face off in November.
(Carol Cain is the Emmy winning senior producer and host of CBS 62 “Michigan Matters.” which airs 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. She also writes in Sunday’s Free Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).