Detroit Heads to the Polls to Elect a Mayor Who Won't Have Any Power

How do you campaign to be in charge of nothing?

Image
Reuters

Two men, Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon, are vying today in Detroit for an elected office most notable for the fact that it comes with none of the things you generally want if you're running for elected office. The winner – expected to be Duggan by a landslide – won't have much power. He won't get to make many serious decisions influencing the future of the city, or even the course of its looming bankruptcy. And he won't control his own budget, a necessity if you want to reduce insane police response times, or replace all those broken street lights, as voters are demanding.

Many residents of Detroit are rightly baffled as to why they're even going to the trouble of electing a new mayor today.

The job has been largely symbolic ever since Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to lead the city through bankruptcy earlier this year. That manager, Kevyn Orr, has final authority over the city's budget and restructuring plan. He's also the one who gets to decide whether to sell off the city's assets or alter its union contracts.

The current mayor, Dave Bing, has lamented his shrinking authority in Orr's shadow (no doubt a factor in his decision not to run for re-election).

Orr has also played the role of an unusual foil in this mayoral campaign: Both candidates have said that they want the guy to go away. Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief and Wayne County sheriff, has said he expects to have "no relationship” with Orr and would push to have him removed. Duggan, a former chief executive who resurrected the financially troubled Detroit Medical Center, sounds like he's hoping Snyder will size up his résumé and decide that Detroit doesn't need an EM after all. Barring that, he's said that he'd like to be the city's Chief Operating Officer to Orr's CFO.

In the meantime, the two candidates (both of whom are Democrats) have been running on platforms they may not be able to carry out. And they've been competing for a job that even voters don't understand. The best hope the winner has is that he'll be able to bide time until late next year, when the city council will be able to vote to end the state's emergency control.

There's also the possibility that the unpleasant decisions Orr must make will clear the way for a new mayor – eventually – to take over a city in better shape than it's been in years.

Polls show Duggan with a substantial lead heading into Election Day. By the end of the night, he could have the twin distinctions of winning the least powerful powerful job in the city, while also becoming Detroit's first white mayor since 1974. That second story has been the least intriguing element of this race, although many in the national media have gingerly insisted that the two are intertwined: Perhaps this city where 83 percent of the population is black doesn't have time for racial politics any more. Should Duggan win, beware any sweeping declarations that a major black city has given up in the midst of its worst crisis on black political leadership.

Top image of Mike Duggan: Rebecca Cook/Reuters.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.