Bankole: Coleman Young II would test mayoral legacy

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

We can expect the monumental contributions of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Alexander Young, to be a highlight of the campaign if it’s true that his son, state Sen. Coleman A. Young II, will seek the mayorship of Detroit.

That’s because the elder Young — who became mayor in 1974, six years after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at a time when blacks were dealing with what King often called the “jangling discords” of racism — was one of the most consequential figures in Detroit’s political history.

If he chooses to run, Coleman Young II puts himself on a collision course with incumbent Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan who already announced he is seeking re-election.

Duggan during his recent mayoral announcement rolled out his former chief opponent, Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County Sheriff; Wayne County Executive Warren Evans; and the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the Detroit NAACP president, as backers for his second term.

Days after the Duggan endorsement, I asked Napoleon if his branding of Duggan in 2013 as wrong for the city was a premature judgment of the candidate. Napoleon only laughed and said that his description during that hard-fought campaign should be seen through the lens of what happens in the throes of campaigns.

A Young challenge to Duggan could make for an interesting race to watch both in the region and around the country because of the elements of race, governance, history and political inheritance that will shape the campaign.

That is because the elder Young’s memory is still strong in Detroit and among senior citizens who are fervent voters in every election — most of whom vote through absentee — and the son could draw on his father’s legacy to make a serious play for the office.

Absentee votes help decide elections in Detroit. During the last mayor’s race, according to the Detroit City Clerk’s office, Duggan got 25,309 absentee votes compared to Napoleon’s 16,397 cast in the general election.

If Young II takes to bended knees before seniors asking for their guidance and support — like a child seeking the blessing of his parents before venturing on a mission — some will support him because of the man they remembered as the first black mayor of Detroit. That will give them a flashback to an era that gave blacks a sense of belonging, which in some respect was the embodiment of the elder Young’s legacy.

Because of that legacy and its ties to Detroit’s civil rights community, the city’s African-American leadership will find itself in a very unpleasant and uncomfortable position.

Those leaders will be forced to decide whether to support an incumbent mayor — who some see as a transformational figure for breaking the racial barriers to be elected mayor in a major black city — and has vowed to bring the city back from the ashes of bankruptcy or be forced to throw their weight behind a candidate whose father took on racism in the institutions of city government such as the integration of the Detroit Police Department, and became a powerful symbol of black pride and political power.

My guess is that some black leaders — including ministers — will stay neutral. Others may do like the biblical Nicodemus, showing up at night when no one is watching to offer support to either candidate.

Recent reports of black officers and charges of racism among promotions inside the police department don’t help matters. Such incidents are exactly the kind of thing former Mayor Young fought against.

But let’s be clear. Young II will face an uphill task or almost impossible battle against a strong Duggan campaign that will be fueled by the funding to oil the wheels of the mayor’s reelection machine.

Still there is no question a Young II campaign will create uneasiness among the economic power structure that is backing Duggan. A Young II run also will rattle some in the establishment — political leaders supporting the mayor — because of the weight of history that will be driving that campaign.

To put it plainly, a Young II mayoral run will have to stand on his record as a state senator. Likewise, Duggan will have to show what he did during his first term and why he is seeking a second term.

Twitter: @bankieT

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon.