Couldn’t help but think during Mayor Mike Duggan’s only scheduled debate with state Sen. Coleman Young Jr. just how predictable it all sounded.

Here’s a challenger with the most potent political name and pedigree Detroit has known in 50 years trying to unseat an incumbent presiding over the most impressive financial turnaround this town as seen in anyone’s memory.

Doesn’t matter that Duggan isn’t the guy who invested billions acquiring and renovating nearly 100 buildings downtown; mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., did.

Doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Duggan’s fortune that bankrolled the billion-dollar District Detroit development effectively bequeathed to the city by pizza magnate Mike Ilitch, who died earlier this year. Or that private business leaders and foundations, chiefly one named Kresge, bankrolled the QLine rolling along Woodward.

Doesn’t matter that Duggan opposed the city’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing or quarreled with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. The federally supervised restructuring did more to cleanse the city’s books and right-size its contracts with vendors and labor unions than any first-term mayor could hope to achieve in the normal course of municipal business.

What matters in next month’s mayoral election is that all those things, and more, unspooled during the mayor’s first term. And that means he’s the chief political beneficiary of unleashed forces he can exploit even if he did next-to-nothing to create them.

Overcoming that ain’t easy, even for someone whose name is Coleman Young. That’s why Wednesday’s debate struck such predictable notes — a challenger hammering the incumbent for being out of touch, for allegedly neglecting the city’s neighborhoods in favor of Gilbert’s downtown patch, for meddling with contracts and alleged bid-rigging.

They’re easy charges to lob. Contending with positive economic reality of Detroit, circa 2017, is a heckuva lot harder. Billions in private investment is pouring into the city, mostly downtown but increasingly in some of its more prominent neighborhoods.

That’s not only necessary. It’s by political design, a calculated move to defend the mayor against precisely the kind of allegations Young and the mayor’s critics so readily level, generally without credible evidence to back them up.

They don’t need any, really. Because in the superficial swamp of today’s electoral politics — in Detroit or nationally — it’s the seriousness of the charge that resonates ... just like a 35-year-old state senator invoking the name, repeatedly, of his legendary father. Or raising the prospect that another Detroit mayor could be headed for jail.

Stripped to their essence, the arguments advanced Wednesday by Young and Duggan are choices between the past and the future, between heavy reliance on multiple levels of government and private investment that helps city government work, between talking about action and actually acting — and having the track record to prove it.

Young evoked the racial, partisan divisiveness of Detroit’s past, Duggan a present of bipartisan diversity that understands the city’s contentious past but refuses to be prisoner to it. Both messages are likely to resonate with their intended audience, evidence the gulf between new and old Detroit remains narrow.

The reinvention of Detroit is for real: the investment and revitalization, a City Hall that works more often than it doesn’t, the working partnership between government and business large and small, the evidence that a robust economy welcoming to investment is more likely to get it.

Detroiters aren’t blind. They can see more buses running and streetlights glowing, more police cars and newer EMS units, cleaned up parks and renovated buildings, new restaurants and rehabbed apartment buildings, construction and more construction.

It’s a Detroit that is building again, working again and hoping again. Duggan doesn’t deserve credit for all of it, not even close, but he can get it. That’s the timing of politics — and it’s not easy to overcome, even for legends.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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