DETROIT (AP) — More than a dozen candidates were running in Tuesday’s primary for Detroit mayor, an office with little immediate power because most operations are being run by an emergency manager seeking to take the city into bankruptcy.
None of the candidates has name recognition outside the city like current Mayor Dave Bing, a former NBA great who opted not seek another four-year term.
The leading candidates to replace him are a former police chief, a perennial mayoral candidate, a fired city attorney and a one-time medical center chief who has launched a write-in campaign. Another write-in candidate is a barber with a similar name, raising the potential that some voters could be confused.
Uncertainty and failure have been standard operating procedure for years in once-mighty Detroit. Last month, it became the largest city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy under the weight of massive debt brought on by crushing population decline and a history of political corruption and mismanagement.
Some of the favorites for mayor have come out against the bankruptcy filing and contend the man who made the filing — state-appointed turnaround expert Kevyn Orr — is holding the job illegally.
The top two vote-getters in Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary will face off in the November general election. That winner moves into City Hall with a title, $158,000 salary and — as things stand now — little else.
Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit councilwoman and founder of a government relations and advocacy firm, said the bankruptcy proceedings are sure to hover over the next mayor’s first term.
“There’s no roadmap of where or how this would go,” she said.
Only about 15 percent to 17 percent of Detroit’s registered voters are expected to cast ballots Tuesday, according to city elections officials.
Seeking to bring stability and turn the city around, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr, a national bankruptcy attorney, in March under a Michigan law that gives emergency managers nearly unlimited power.
On July 18, Orr made the Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in federal court. He said Detroit is insolvent, unable to pay off debt that his restructuring team says could reach $20 billion. He has stopped paying on $2.5 billion in bonds, using that money to pump up struggling and underfunded city services. He also asked city creditors and Detroit’s two pension funds to accept pennies on the dollar in money owed them.
One candidate, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, contends Orr was illegally appointed as emergency manager.
“My pitch to him is, ‘You’re here to straighten out the finances. You have no municipal government experience,'” said Napoleon, the city police chief for three years beginning in 1998. “The emergency manager puts the budget together. The mayor should be able to set the priorities.”
Orr, a turnaround specialist who is receiving $275,000 annually for his 18-month assignment, also is getting little love from other candidates.
Tom Barrow, an accountant who lost mayoral runs in 1985, 1989 and 2009, also believes a bankruptcy judge’s directives are to be carried out by the city and its elected officials once Orr approves the budget.
“In light of the bankruptcy filing, I don’t believe he retains his power under state law,” Barrow said of Orr. “Bankruptcy laws kick in. Those laws are explicit that the debtor is the municipality and its elected officials.”
Napoleon and Barrow were expected to face a stiff challenge for a spot on the November ballot from former Detroit Medical Center Chief Executive Mike Duggan. But Duggan is running a write-in campaign because a residency issue kicked him off the ballot.
Although Duggan would appear poised to become Detroit’s first write-in mayor, part of his challenge will be making sure voters spell his name correctly. That’s because another candidate, barber Mike Dugeon, is seeking the job as well. He has never run for elected office and said he filed after being approached by a local television reporter over his name similarity with Duggan.
That could make tabulating the write-ins onerous and time-consuming. Following the primary, county canvassers will go over the spellings on each write-in ballot cast to determine who gets the votes.
“We’re going to be fine,” Duggan told The Associated Press. “I don’t think voters in this city will have any trouble spelling my name correctly. Every place I go people are spelling D-U-G-G-A-N.”
Unlike Napoleon and Barrow, Duggan doesn’t expect a bankruptcy to turn Detroit back over to the mayor and council.
“My preference would be for the governor to dissolve the emergency manager and let the mayor represent the city in bankruptcy court,” he said.
If elected, Duggan said he won’t wait until taking office in January to work with Orr.
“I intend to be engaged from the day after the election to push for a plan that leads to a vibrant recovery for the city,” he said. “I’ll try to convince the emergency manager to adopt my version and, if not, convince the bankruptcy judge to adopt it.”
That’s the course all candidates should push across to voters, Cockrel said.
“What we should be hearing from candidates is their understanding of the financial crisis, their approaches to facilitating the process of getting through bankruptcy and what their plans and strategies should be,” she said.