By Corey Williams, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) – He has name recognition, political pedigree and the same racial heritage as about 80 percent of the people he wants to represent, yet Coleman Young II is an underdog in his bid to supplant Detroit’s popular white mayor.
Young, a state senator and son of Detroit’s first black mayor, hopes to defeat Mike Duggan on Tuesday, but it won’t be easy.
Four years ago, Duggan won the job by defeating a popular black sheriff, ending nearly four decades of unbroken black leadership that reflected Detroit’s major demographic shift following years of white flight. Having inherited a city under emergency state management that had recently filed for bankruptcy, there is a sense that Detroit is on the upswing and that Duggan deserves a second term.
In the nonpartisan August primary, Duggan got more than 67 percent of the vote to Young’s nearly 27 percent. And Duggan has the backing of the influential Black Slate, which helped Young’s father, Coleman A. Young, get elected in 1973.
“We love Coleman Young II — as we loved his father,” said Baye Landy, regional coordinator for the political action committee. “We supported him for state representative and the state Senate, and we’re still with him and will be with him in the future.
“(But) we have to go with folks who do what needs to be done for our community. It doesn’t matter the color. The Black Slate has never been about race. It’s been about what’s best for black people,” he said.
As black populations began to grow in some of the nation’s larger cities during the 1960s and 1970s, black voters turned out in large numbers to elect African American candidates. To many of those voters, though, race has become less of a factor than solving thorny problems that have bedeviled some of their communities, such as high unemployment and poverty.
“With all things equal, I think most black communities would prefer to have an African American mayor,” said Marcus Pohlmann, political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “I don’t think the intensity in doing that is the way it (once) was.”
If things haven’t improved under a black mayor, some black voters won’t care if the answers come from a white candidate, Pohlmann added.
“There’s only so much a mayor can do in some of these economically distressed cities,” he said. “After three or four terms, people are going to wonder why things haven’t radically changed.”
Other major cities with large black populations have replaced black mayors with a white one, including Memphis, Tennessee, New Orleans and St. Louis, which elected Alderwoman Lyda Krewson to be mayor in April.
Krewson, who is white, narrowly defeated black city treasurer Tishaura Jones in the Democratic primary. Blacks comprise 49 percent of St. Louis’ 316,000 residents, while whites make up 44 percent.
In Memphis, which is about 63 percent black and 30 percent white, a white city councilman, Jim Strickland, defeated black incumbent A C Wharton in 2015 for the mayor’s job.
Mitch Landrieu, meanwhile, is New Orleans’ first white mayor since his father, Moon Landrieu, left the office in 1978. Landrieu is term-limited, however, and will be replaced by one of two black women competing in a Nov. 18 runoff to lead the city, which is about two-thirds black.
To many in Detroit, Duggan is seen as part of the city’s turnaround.
Duggan had limited control over city finances and other operations in his first year in office, as a state-appointed emergency manager pushed Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. But he and the city council eventually regained control after Detroit exited bankruptcy in December 2014.
During his time in office, Duggan has attacked blight, using millions of dollars in federal grants to knock down more than 10,000 vacant houses and teaming up with foundations and banks on programs to rehab housing. He has also tried to attract shops and people to neighborhood commercial corridors.
Young, whose father Coleman A. Young ran Detroit from 1974 until 1994, pointed out during a debate last month that some of the city’s blackest and most depressed neighborhoods are still suffering.
“It’s the best of times for everybody’s who’s privileged and worst of times for everybody else,” Young said.
That privilege extends to skin color, he told The Associated Press recently.
“Race is everything,” he said. “It determines whether or not you get a job, get a mortgage; whether or not you get arrested.”
During the debate, Duggan acknowledged that Detroit has “a lot of haves and have-nots.”
“But the responsibility of leadership is to make sure where you start out is not where you end up,” he said.
Michael Wise, a black retired veteran from Detroit, said the color of the person leading the city shouldn’t matter.
“Who else to identify with black people than a black mayor? But that doesn’t make it right,” said Wise, who declined to say who he’ll back. “You need someone who’s qualified.”
Marc Morial, who was New Orleans’ mayor from 1994-2002 and whose father, Ernest Morial, became the city’s first black mayor in 1978, said he thinks a white mayor can effectively run a largely black city and still be responsive to the African American community.
Black voters likely would prefer an African American mayor, but in today’s world, making sure city services are equitable and done well are just as important to some, said Marc Morial, who is now president and CEO of the National Urban League, a civil rights group.
“People are beyond symbolism, I think, politically,” he said. “In today’s world people are looking for effectiveness. They are looking for leadership.”