Bankole: Duggan war chest sheds light on ‘two Detroits’

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s $2.8 million re-election campaign war chest raises questions about his commitment to his impoverished constituents who elected him in 2013.

Consider the fact that Duggan is the most prominent Democrat in Wayne County, but his campaign donors are comprised mostly of suburban business interests, deep pockets and big banks, all of whom are traditional targets of Democratic Party campaign slingshots.

Democrats like to claim purity when it comes to who is beholden to big business, always accusing their Republican counterparts of either selling their souls or capitulating to Wall Street demands or big money interests at the expense of the masses of people.

That is part of how Democrats have run their campaigns. A classic example is how they have made the billionaire Koch brothers the bogeymen in the political process. We may even see more of that kind of tactic in the 2018 gubernatorial election. That is what helped propel U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign when he called for a revolution on Wall Street.

But when Duggan, the leader of the state’s largest Democratic base — which also happens to be among the most impoverished cities in the nation — has very few regular Detroiters as significant campaign contributors, compared to the corporate titans and financial institutions lining up behind him, it’s hard to make the argument that Democrats are more independent of Wall Street than their Republican rivals.

And if Duggan were to decide to run for governor next year as some politicos are speculating, the debate about who is inoculated from the influence pedaling of rich donors will intensify, and it would be a more difficult argument for the mayor to make against Republican candidates.

The optics are not good for Duggan because it emphasizes the divide between downtown and the neighborhoods, which he needs to fully address by rolling out an anti-poverty plan with timelines. It also sends the message — even if the mayor believes that is not the case — that he will dance more to the music of the business district than to the tune of the neighborhoods.

In politics, perception can be stronger than reality.

And it doesn’t help matters when the mayor recently referred to the phenomenon of “two Detroits” as fiction in an interview with a reporter on the night of his primary victory. It was a shocking description coming after all the push this year to confront the vexing question of how the rest of Detroit can come back in the wake of a booming downtown.

Though his chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, tried to walk back the comments the next day, saying that the mayor did not actually mean to suggest such, his remarks were still insensitive.

In a city where poverty remains an ever present reality for the majority and an administration that appears to be making all the pivots to be attentive to the needs of residents — evident by the mayor’s surprising race speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference — Duggan should not be feeding into the perception of us v. them.

His opponent, state Sen. Coleman Young II, who has raised a paltry $22,000, has sought to brand Duggan as the mayor of downtown, not the neighborhoods.

While the mayor is fighting that designation by holding community meetings and making announcements of new initiatives, his incredible financial advantage raised the question: How does Mike Duggan navigate the interest of those who have financially invested in his re-election and at the same time work to address the needs of other Detroiters who put him in office?

That is a fair question as long as Detroit’s progress is seen from opposing lens’ that offer varying meanings about quality of life in the city.

After all, any leader of a city as impoverished as Detroit should be able to play the role of a credible negotiator in navigating the difficult waters of expanding opportunities in distressed neighborhoods, while responding to business investment needs.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.