By Bankole Thompson
Let’s get this out of the way: if the United States can elect Barack Obama twice as president, Detroit can elect Mike Duggan as mayor. It is not going to be politically impossible any longer because voters in Tuesday’s primary showed that they are more concerned with the policies and plans of the candidates than they are about their skin color. Duggan got over 50 percent of the votes leaving his challenger Benny Napoleon with 30 percent.
We saw the first race test in the primary when some of the candidates directly or indirectly injected race at some of the debates that were held including one that I moderated (the final debate at Perfecting Church). Clearly that kind of politics once had political capital and sway in Detroit but if Tuesday’s results are anything to go by, not everyone in Detroit is buying into the wells of race and racism.
For a write-in candidate come out as the top contender in a field with 13 contenders and to pull ahead with almost 20 percentage points is a political comeback story especially for Duggan who has been knocked off the ballot by two courts. Clearly, shows the strength of the Duggan campaign’s not only campaign war chest but also its ground game. Duggan has been visiting personal houses of voters long before the field of candidates became crowded.
What happened on Tuesday was a payoff for such ground game but it also showed the power of personal politics. Voters take it to heart when you visit their homes personally to share your vision with them. How many candidates running for office take the time to visit more than 40 homes sitting in the living rooms of their constituents talking to them for hours? And to his credit Duggan was the first candidate to begin that kind of dialogue in this mayoral cycle.
What happened on Tuesday defied conventional political wisdom and now forces Duggan’s ardent critics to rewrite their strategy or reconsider their thinking about the current political race. It also makes the race for Detroit’s next mayor a national contest because the city stands at the crucible of electing a white mayor for the first time in four decades.
But the race for mayor is not over yet. Napoleon, who finished second surprisingly since he was in the lead until a week before the election, will be forced to mount a stronger campaign and now galvanize the troops while offering his own plan and vision for the city.
We have a real mayor’s race now because both Duggan and Napoleon have no choice but to speak directly to the issues, and we have to vet their programs as well as their record to see who is best capable to usher Detroit into a new chapter after the city emerges from bankruptcy and in a post-Kevyn Orr era.
There is a take away lesson for candidates in Tuesday’s election. That the campaign of divisiveness doesn’t work all the time and that voters can sometimes see through the prism of division. We saw it happened on the national stage with Obama’s reelection when some of his opposition started using code words that were directly aimed at creating racial hatred and to scare white voters in crucial states.
Yet, Obama, won decisively for a second term to the shock of Washington’s conventional wisdom. Duggan, won decisively Tuesday because the majority who voted for him want to see something different. The votes were also a rejection of the racial politics that was the underpinning of the primary campaign.
I recalled in one debate Tom Barrow directly pointed at Duggan and basically said he doesn’t have a Detroit accent, a direct and callous attack on a candidate who was born in this city. The other candidates had an opportunity at that time to condemn that kind of attack and to show that they were bigger than the lowest points of racial politics but they kept silent. Perhaps their thinking was if Barrow does the dirty job it might just work for them as well.
Those who are bigger always rise above the divisive and political fray when others want to sink low. At least they should have gone on the record to condemn that level of campaigning. But it was not the case. And Detroit voters paid back with political spanking Tuesday night making it clear which direction they want to head to.
Duggan v. Napoleon is the race to follow and will give us a lot to look forward to because both candidates know the stakes are high. Neither of them is going to be complacent. Certainly the threshold of performance this time around might weigh heavier on Napoleon because he finished second behind a write-in candidate instead of first place. He has to outperform and to show that he can take this city to a different level of leadership.
The game is on.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and politics, the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.bankolethompson.com