Michigan State Sen. Coleman Young, II is running against Detroit incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan as a champion of the impoverished and the restorer of local control to a city besieged by state oversight.
Detroit — The city bus doors swing open and there’s Coleman A. Young II, extending a hand and campaign literature to boarding riders.
“I’m Coleman Young Jr. I’m running for mayor. I want to have your vote,” the 35-year-old state senator said last week to men and women climbing on the Detroit Department of Transportation’s Grand River line. In between greetings, he addressed questions about blight, car insurance and jobs.
The message resonated with Michael Paul Jackson, a west side resident. He chatted with Young about “unfair” policies during his recent commute and vowed Young will get his vote.
“I want somebody who is going to do something,” said Jackson, a 63-year-old plumber. “I liked Coleman Young Sr. Actually, I like him (Young II) because he’s part of his old man, and his old man made a lot of changes.”
Young added with a laugh: “The fruit don’t fall too far from the truck.”
The exchange represents the campaign paradox for Young. He evokes the legacy of his late father, Coleman A. Young, who led the city for two decades as Detroit’s first African-American mayor. Still, he insists he wants to get elected on his own merits in what political experts call an uphill battle against Mayor Mike Duggan.
“I’m not trying to compare myself to him,” insisted Young, who hands out campaign literature with a photo of himself alongside his father.
“I know who I am. I know why I’m doing this. I know what my purpose is.”
But Young said he counts the connection residents make between himself and his father as “a blessing.”
“I don’t think there will ever be another Coleman Young, but that’s like the loadstar I try to use to base my career off of,” he said. “That’s what I aspire to be.”
The recent morning bus ride from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the end of the route on the city’s west side is part of what Young said have become weekly trips over the past few months.
This day, it’s Grand River. Others, it’s been the Dexter and Woodward bus lines. Young arrived at the terminal around 8 a.m., offering hugs, posing for pictures and urging “Vote Coleman Young.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen somebody come on the bus over down here,” Jackson said. “This one-on-one thing, it’s different.”
The bus rides align with Young’s low-budget, grassroots campaign. Duggan raised 73 times more money than Young prior to the August primary, $1.6 million to $22,000. The mayor overwhelmingly has secured the most endorsements and won the primary 68 percent to 27 percent in his bid for a second, four-year term.
Even so, the state senator, who has mainly used social media to share his vision for Detroit, says he’s not worried about the Nov. 7 general election. And campaign manager Adolph Mongo has said Young’s name alone is worth $2 million.
“We’ve definitely done enough to get the message out. We’ve talked to people about who we are, what we want to do and why we are doing this and how we want to do it,” Young said.
But a Young victory is viewed as a long shot. He finished fifth in a 2009 special election primary to replace former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a race ultimately won by then-acting Mayor and former City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr.
“It’s a tough, long, hard and somewhat impossible road for Sen. Young at this point,” said Mario Morrow, president and CEO of the Detroit-based political and media relations firm Mario Morrow and Associates.
“I don’t think Sen. Young has the people, the machine or the funds to defeat Mike Duggan. Timing is everything, and this is not his time.”
None of Young’s three fellow Detroit senators is backing him in the November general election. In interviews, fellow lawmakers and staff described Young as a hard worker, caring individual and passionate advocate for Detroit who has often entertained but occasionally frustrated colleagues during his nearly 11 years in the Michigan Legislature.
Auto insurance reform fight
In July, Young released an eight-page blueprint for restoring Detroit. It threatens legal action over high car insurance rates, more potential school closures and reinstating residency requirements for the city’s first responders that are currently banned by state law.
Young said auto insurance rates in the city are “racist red-lining” and need a mandatory rollback. A required rate reduction has been proposed in the state House, but it faces opposition in the Michigan Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has said he opposes “price fixing.”
“If they are not going to change the laws, then as mayor I’m going to sue the auto insurance industry,” he said. “This is economic bondage.”
Young said he doesn’t agree with the mayor’s plan to improve car insurance rates for city drivers. Duggan last month announced alongside Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard a proposal to drive down premiums for Michigan motorists who opt to buy lower-coverage plans.
“We are going to give drivers actual choice in the amount of insurance they buy,” Duggan said.
Young criticized the timing of the proposal and contends it fails to address alleged “redlining” or limiting insurers from raising rates again after five years.
“The first plan he had was a rate reduction plan with no rate reduction in it. Now we’ve got an anti-redlining plan with no redlining in it,” Young argued. “He’s got Kool-Aid, he ain’t got no sugar. He’s got ham, he ain’t got no burger. He’s got a hotdog, he ain’t got no bun. If this was not so serious, it would be laughable.”
Young has repeatedly criticized Duggan over a continuing federal criminal investigation into the city’s demolition program and accuses Duggan of ignoring impoverished neighborhoods.
Duggan’s campaign has rejected that claim, pointing to all the revitalization efforts that have come online under the mayor. Duggan said Tuesday he doesn’t suspect Young’s argument will hold up.
“It’s the same thing he used as his campaign theme in the primary, and I suspect it isn’t going to wear on voters any better right now,” Duggan told reporters after a news conference this week.
Young also criticizes past Detroit public school closures under state-appointed emergency managers and a lack of accountability over charter schools that he contends are “cannibalizing on our school district.”
Duggan backed Detroit school debt bailout legislation creating a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the opening of traditional public and charter schools in the city, but the Republican-led House rejected the idea.
Young hits lack of debates
Young and Duggan are scheduled to face off in a single debate on Oct. 25. Young has urged Duggan to participate in other forums, including a poverty town hall. Duggan’s campaign has declined.
When Duggan ran against Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon in 2013, they had three debates.
“You’ve gone through the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, you have the most poverty, the most crime — right here in the same area — the most water shutoffs. These are things that need to be debated and talked about, daily, so people have the information so they can make proper decisions,” Young said. “I think it’s fear ... it’s shameful.”
Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy protection for Detroit in July 2013, before Duggan got elected.
Duggan said he doesn’t believe Young’s us-versus-them politics is what most voters in Detroit want.
“The interesting thing will be, does he actually have any solutions?” Duggan told The News this week. “We’ve been waiting for 10 months to hear some. Maybe he’ll unveil them next week.”
Young’s platform is broad and calls for more skilled trade education programs, permitting centers for small businesses and legally binding community benefits for major projects. He also wants to see a $15-an-hour state minimum wage, up from the current $8.90.
Skirmishing over crime
He recently slammed Detroit Police Chief James Craig over the city’s crime and accused him of putting the Duggan administration’s image over public safety — a charge that Craig rejected.
The senator and his campaign have teased an upcoming announcement on Young’s plan to address crime that calls for the expansion of police mini-stations and foot patrols. It’s been postponed.
Young also has gone after the city’s water department for “incompetence,” saying its shutoff campaign for delinquent accounts is inhumane and claimed his campaign headquarters was turned off earlier this month in error.
Young said the shutoff wasn’t justified and the bill had been paid, but officials with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said it was cut off for a past-due balance.
East English Village resident Maureen Dritsan said Young, whose Senate district neighbors her community, has been visible but thinks his message doesn’t connect with many voters.
“I think his intentions are good, but I don’t think he’s there yet,” she said. “Not to take over the city position.”
On the other hand, Dritsan said she’s pleased with the build-up of the city’s core and improved services. Duggan, she said, is savvy and his office is accessible.
“I really feel that people want to be in this city again,” said Dritsan, who is voting for Duggan.
During recent campaign travels on the city’s west side, Young visited J’s Cafe on Grand River for breakfast. He passed out campaign pamphlets and shook the hands of patrons, including Lawrence Woodward.
The 47-year-old Ford Motor Co. worker said he intends to vote for Young and acquire campaign signs to put up in his yard.
Woodward, a Rosedale Park resident, said he isn’t satisfied with the Duggan administration.
“I heard that (Young) is going to do a lot for the neighborhoods,” he said. “I like his character. If he’s anything like his dad, he will do a good job.”
Coleman A. Young II
City: Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood
Political experience: State House, 2007-10; state Senate, 2011-present.
Other experience: Worked as a research intern in 2005 for former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. Studied communications at Wayne State University.