Wayne County Executive candidate Warren Evans thanks his supporters at his election night party. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano failed to win renomination Tuesday, as former County Sheriff Warren Evans took his party’s primary with a comfortable win over a pack of Democrats seeking to lead Michigan’s most populous county.
With all of the votes counted, Ficano placed fifth in the field of 11. Evans had about 44 percent of the vote while second-place finisher Westland Mayor William Wild received 26 percent.
The field also included state Rep. Phil Cavanagh and Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara. The primary winner — barring an unlikely upset in the largely Democratic area in November — will take over the county’s top job.
“Tonight’s not just a victory for me; it’s a victory for all of us,” Evans said. “Turning around Wayne County is not a job for a chief executive officer. It’s a job for a team and a leader. I think I’m that leader.”
Wild conceded to Evans despite hoping for a different result, and said he will continue his work in Westland.
“We joined together to stand up for change — and there’s no doubt voters want change,” Wild said. “I want to keep our turnaround going, bring even more jobs and economic development to our community. ... I will continue to be a voice for responsible, honest government in Wayne County.”
Ficano didn’t publicly concede the race and instead twice thanked supporters at Mario’s restaurant in Midtown. The closest he came to acknowledging defeat was telling supporters “no matter what happens, we are going to complete the agenda. We’re going to complete the jail and pass the deficit elimination plan.”
Within 15 minutes of Ficano’s 90-second speech at 11 p.m., he hugged his two children goodbye and almost all of his 50 supporters left. Most were county employees who privately acknowledged they had braced for defeat for months. The only question was the margin. And many were shocked that Evans so thoroughly dominated the evening.
As his aides collected campaign signs and the restaurant emptied, Ficano lingered near a restroom and spoke quietly with his fundraiser, Nader Fakhouri. Told by The Detroit News that most thought his defeat is certain, Ficano shrugged his shoulders and said, “OK.”
“The numbers are still out there,” Ficano said. “At this point, whatever we do, we’re going to do tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, the crowd swelled and grew louder and happier through the night at the Evans campaign. The former Detroit police chief took the podium at 11:49 p.m., feeling confident he was en route to an easy victory.
“I can’t really call the race,” he said around midnight. “But the numbers I’ve seen have been two-to-one.”
Evans said he’s going to form collaborations and work to “create a way to get roads fixed.”
“The collaboration necessary to get the funds to do those kinds of things is critically important,” he said. “We’re going to move Wayne County forward.”
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm was on hand at the Evans event near downtown. She called Evans an “old friend.” Both served in the administration of Ed McNamara, Ficano’s predecessor as county executive.
“I love him dearly and I think he will be an excellent county executive for the whole county,” Granholm said of Evans.
Ficano faced a series of controversies that soured him to voters such as Khalil Hamilton and Ginger Willis, two city residents who stood outside Greater Emmanuel Institute in northwest Detroit on Tuesday afternoon in the pouring rain to support other candidates.
Willis favored Wild because Ficano “had too many scandals; there seemed to be a new one every month.” Hamilton distributed literature for Evans because “if you keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then that’s insane.”
“Warren Evans supports the people,” said Hamilton, who noted that Evans, as Wayne County sheriff, refused to evict homeowners during the foreclosure crisis that swept through Detroit in the late 2000s.
Ficano has held countywide office since 1983, when he was appointed sheriff. He became executive in 2003, weeks after FBI agents raided the offices of his predecessor, Ed McNamara.
Ficano’s first two terms were relatively quiet, but he’s endured one controversy after another since FBI agents served subpoenas on his administration. Four former top aides have pleaded guilty and a federal grand jury investigation into county corruption is ongoing, as is a criminal probe into cost overruns that caused last year’s cancellation of a half-finished $300 million jail.
“Ficano is a good man who stands up for the people,” said Ken Roland, who lives on Detroit’s west side. “He hasn’t had enough time to right the wrongs that someone else committed. He can get the jail project back on track if they give him a chance.”
The county’s reputation is such that Cavanagh last week bragged to voters that “I’ve never had an FBI investigation into my family.” Sitting next to him was a fellow candidate, Commissioner Kevin McNamara, whose father, Edward, died amid an FBI investigation.
The county’s problems became legion under Ficano.
Cost overruns plagued the county’s move into the Guardian Building. The county invested millions of dollars into the failed Pinnacle horse racing course in Huron Township that closed in 2010 after two years.
The pension system is less than 50 percent funded. The state tentatively approved a Ficano deficit reduction plan after the county’s accumulated debt ran as high as $175 million, recently falling to $100 million. And Ficano approved a series of buyouts and pension sweeteners, including an infamous $200,000 severance to his former economic development chief Turkia Mullin.
She returned the money, but the FBI still demanded information about her dealings with the county. Court filings indicate she and Ficano’s former top deputy, Azzam Elder, were the focus of the FBI probe. Ficano has tried without success to receive written assurances from the U.S. attorney that he is not a target.
“I wanted Ficano out more than anything,” said former Wayne County worker Tom Mason, a 25-year resident of Redford Township who voted for Evans.
Detroiter Lindsey Mason said he voted for Evans, citing a need for a fresh start.
“He is the right individual for the job at this particular time,” Mason said.
Mason said he didn’t like what he considered the lack of support for other elected officials, such as Prosecutor Kym Worthy. He also did not like what happened with the Wayne County jail.
“The current Wayne County executive has not completed the task at hand like the new jail,” said Mason, who voted at a church on Dexter Avenue on the city’s west side. “The buck stops with someone. With (Ficano) being a leader, it stops with him.”