Benny Napoleon, left, and Mike Duggan, have had every opportunity to sling mud, but have run a clean mayoral race. (Detroit Mayoral debate, WXYZ)
Detroiters will elect a new mayor on Tuesday and if polls are correct, it will be Mike Duggan, the former Detroit Medical Center CEO, Wayne County prosecutor and assistant county executive.
His opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, claims to have internal polls showing a neck-and-neck race and we’ll find out soon enough which pollsters have it right.
But no matter who wins, the race itself deserves significant note for its civility. It’s been a remarkably quiet campaign, save for the three debates over the last week.
Not many expected it to be this way.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a veteran of many election cycles, described the campaign on my WJR Radio show as “very low key; I thought this thing would be tearing the roofs off.”
The prevailing wisdom was that this would turn into a race-baiting campaign by Napoleon, one that emphasized an African-American candidate representing a predominantly black American city as the only true voice of the people.
The sheriff deserves immense credit for steering his criticisms of Duggan toward other, more important, issues than the color of his skin as the former Livonia resident attempts to become Detroit’s first white mayor since Roman Gribbs.
Some of Napoleon’s supporters in the clergy have not followed his lead, refusing to invited Duggan to speak to their congregations based on race, but they’ve been in the minority and Napoleon has never embraced their stance.
True, the sheriff has mentioned more than once that Duggan slept comfortably in his Livonia home while he and other law enforcement officials fought crime in Detroit, but that was a legitimate critique, attempting to paint his opponent as a political opportunist rather than some white predator swooping in to strip Detroit of its “jewels,” a common misconception that’s been promoted on other occasions by the more radical political crowd in the city, including members of its council.
If the polls predicting a blowout are right, Napoleon’s mentions of Duggan’s outsider status have not carried much electoral weight, perhaps because Detroit is currently under the watch of another suburbanite-turned-mayor in Dave Bing.
A Duggan victory would do more than show Detroit’s willingness to accept the credentials of a self-described turnaround specialist, it would represent a step forward for the city’s electorate, long showing a willingness to accept the old “us against the world” mentality that has done nothing to improve Michigan’s largest municipality, and which was rejected as a campaign stratagem by Napoleon.
It would show an enlightened willingness — some would say desperation — to accept ideas for improvement that go beyond racial and geographical boundaries.
By comparison, how many suburban communities do you think would elect a black Detroiter who had moved into their area only a year before an election to be their highest ranking official?
The Duggan/Napoleon race has instead focused on the qualifications of the candidates.
Leaving aside the campaign claims on both sides — some of them incorrect — intended to undermine the strengths of the other, this has been a race that has given Detroiters a choice of what’s most important to them, since both men share criticism of the current emergency manager appointment.
If they believe the key issue is crime, they’ll choose Napoleon for his lifelong devotion to the law enforcement community as beat cop, Detroit police chief, and Wayne County Sheriff.
If they believe its city administration, they’ll choose Duggan who led the turnaround of the DMC.
Those are their main calling cards, despite the experience of both men in presenting the top skills of the other in a much worse light.
If Napoleon wins, his victory would represent the ultimate local-kid-makes- good story, a lifelong Detroiter who fought to defend the city from criminal predators his entire adult life.
If Duggan wins, it’s the quintessential underdog story of a candidate who had been booted from the ballot, and had to be talked into running —and winning — an unlikely primary write-in campaign after shutting down his political office and even returning the copying machine he had leased for the race when it looked like the courts had taken him out.
Either way, the real winners are Detroiters who have been spared the divisiveness that could have been.
Frank Beckmann is host of “The Frank Beckmann Show” on WJR-AM (760).