October 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

DETROIT POLITICS

Column: Mayor's race? What mayor's race?

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, left, Mike Duggan )

I ran into a longtime observer of Detroit politics last week and asked him the standard, seasonal question: What do you think about the mayor’s race?

“What mayor’s race?” he replied. “It’s nonexistent.”

Of all the curious things that have happened in Detroit politics this year, the fizzling of what was supposed to be a rock ’em, sock ’em mayoral campaign is among the most baffling.

After a news-chocked primary marked by serial lawsuits, the bumping from the ballot of the front-runner and a stunning write-in victory, the general election contest has been a bore, at least so far.

You can go days without hearing or reading anything significant about the campaign, and then it’s usually the announcement of an endorsement by some group of one candidate or the other.

With a month to go, this has yet to turn into the racially charged slug-fest between two heavyweight candidates.

It’s playing more like a suburban school board race.

Mike Duggan seems ready to walk into City Hall as the first white mayor in 40 years without Benny Napoleon slowing him down at all.

So where is Benny? I get almost daily updates from the Duggan camp, but hardly ever see anything from Napoleon.

The Wayne County sheriff hasn’t exhibited the passion I’d expect from someone who’s worked his way up the political ladder and now has a shot at becoming mayor of his hometown.

Perhaps the thumping he took in the primary — how do you lose by 23 points to a write-in challenger? — took the starch out of him.

Before Aug. 6, Napoleon thought he had the mayor’s office in the bag. And then suddenly he didn’t.

He doesn’t seem to know how to relight the fire beneath his campaign.

Napoleon got caught short by the overwhelming response to Duggan’s “change” message, and even after seeing how hungry voters are for a leader who will vanquish the status quo, he hasn’t pivoted in that direction.

His latest commercials bearing the grammatically challenged slogan “We must have forgot” continue the failed “I’m from here, he’s not” theme of the primary.

It didn’t work all summer, and it isn’t working in the fall.

Nor are voters responding to the not-so-subtle racial pitches by Detroit ministers who back the sheriff.

That’s a tactic that always worked before. When Coleman Young got through with Ernest Browne in their mayoral match-up in 1977, even Browne thought he was white.

There’s something going on with the electorate this time that Duggan has figured out and Napoleon hasn’t yet.

There’s still time for this race to explode. Remember that Kwame Kilpatrick was thumped by Freman Hendrix in his re-election primary, then rallied his supporters to pull off a big win in the fall.

But if it’s going to happen, Napoleon has to stop lumbering and break into a run.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
(313)222-2064
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