Finley: Young’s ‘motherland’ comment spoils performance

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Coleman Young was clipping along fairly well in the Detroit mayoral debate, where he had been expected to be severely outgunned by the incumbent, Mike Duggan.

He stuck relentlessly to the threads that the current mayor is out of touch with the neighborhoods, dances to the tune called by downtown developers, and has had a career that skirted the edge of the law.

The state senator was poised and prepared. And even though he was, as Duggan charged, making up a lot of stuff, he was for 90 percent of the hour-long debate standing on equal footing with his more experienced opponent.

Except for this: “Let’s take back the motherland.”

That blatant bit of racial politicking came out of nowhere. It spoiled a respectable performance, and worse, served as as a rallying cry to Detroit’s worst instincts.

I’d invite anyone to tell me the difference between Young’s “Take back the Motherland” and Donald Trump’s “Take back America,” which was widely viewed during the presidential campaign as an appeal to white nationalism.

Tensions flare in studio before debate

Throughout the night, Young flirted with the race card, touching it often but rarely slapping it on the table.

When it did come out, it was an ugly throwback to the era when the hallmark of elections in Detroit was racial fearmongering.

It will play well, perhaps, with some elements in the city who still cling to the conspiracy theory that rich, white businessmen want to take over Detroit and drive out all of the black residents.

But it will embarrass and distress those who have embraced a more hopeful vision of Detroit, and who believe that the revival of downtown is the vanguard of a broader, citywide comeback.

Detroit has changed. It has moved beyond the time when an election could be won by beating the white bogeyman. And Young will not win by dividing a city that is striving to pull together.

As I said, Young was doing OK. He kept Duggan on his heels, forcing him to defend his record in the neighborhoods, which the mayor did well and in admirable detail.

And yet Duggan had to spend so much time defending what he’s done to date that he wasn’t able to talk as much as he should have about what he hopes to do in the future.

For much of the evening, the mayor seemed testy. He looked as if he’d rather be anywhere other than the WDIV-TV studios, where the debate was staged.

Repeatedly, Duggan had to remind viewers that Young was “making things up.” And he was.

But call someone a crook enough times in the course of an hour, and some voters will walk away believing Duggan is actually just one step ahead of the feds.

By pushing the Two Detroits narrative early and often, Young kept Duggan from exploiting what should have been one of his big bragging points: the remarkable and rapid redevelopment of Downtown.

I might have missed it, but I believe the only time the exciting new Little Caesars Arena development was mentioned was when Young accused the mayor of having his office there.

That’s a shameful omission of a key piece of Detroit’s story.

This election should not be about downtown vs. the neighborhoods. They are both part of one city, and both must thrive to make the city whole. If downtown is ahead of the game, so what? Great things happening in one part of the city can only benefit the other parts.

Young’s admonition to “Take back the Motherland” should be followed by another: And do what with it?

The senator never answered that question. He seemed concerned only about counting white faces, and making sure Detroit doesn’t have too many of them.

Detroit has been led before by race baiters such as Young. Those were not exactly its glory days.

What Young demonstrated Wednesday night was that he’d be the mayor of Detroit’s past, not its future.

Catch Nolan Finley from 7-9 a.m. weekdays on 910am Superstation.