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Incumbency a plus in Detroit primary as officeholders move on to November election

8/4/21

Detroit Free Press

By Dana Afana and Clara Hendrickson 

Experience in office may count for something big these days in Detroit at the ballot box.

The city’s two-term mayor, a good chunk of its city council and the incumbent city clerk all fared very well in Tuesday’s primary election, propelling them forward to the general election in November. The effort to upend the city’s governing rules with a revision of the city charter — a move opposed by current Mayor Mike Duggan and several other major city stakeholders — was also defeated by about a two-to-one margin.

The results meant that primary day voters — still just a small slice of the overall electorate -— cast their ballots largely in favor of trusting its current leadership and keeping the city on its current course.

Case-in-point: the Detroit Regional Chamber. The powerful business group endorsed incumbents for mayor and open city council seats where available. But a leader at the group said its board based its evaluations in fact on how all of the candidates would approach investments in small businesses run by Detroiters.

“That is the first thing….that a city council candidate should think about,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations at the chamber. “How do they think about all the corporate citizens who reside in the city? While the number of employees who come downtown to work maybe don’t vote, they’re certainly taxpayers and an important economic engine. That isn’t always top of mind for council candidates.”

The chamber also supported candidates based on how they planned to boost business traffic, which was gutted during the pandemic, Williams added.

“We’re open to fresh faces. But where there were incumbents, the way the process plays out, the city is coming back strong. The council and the mayor have worked well together,” Williams said.

Detroit is home to about 500,000 voters, but just over 71,000 voted in Tuesday’s primary, according to unofficial election results.

The 14.3% turnout rate on Tuesday slightly exceeded the 13.9% turnout in the city’s previous municipal primary in 2017. Tuesday’s primary also marked the first municipal primary in which every voter in the city had the right to vote absentee. But the expansion of access to voting didn’t boost turnout significantly.

Mayor seeks third term

Few political watchers were surprised with the primary day performance of Mayor Mike Duggan, who captured a commanding 72% of the vote. His upcoming challenger in the general election, Tuesday’s second-place winner Anthony Adams, trailed sharply with nearly 10%, according to unofficial election results posted by Wayne County early Wednesday morning.

Duggan’s sizable contributions may have aided popularity with voters on Tuesday. In the latest campaign finance filings, the mayor out-raised all of his competitors by a significant margin, collecting more than $1 million in contributions. But political observers in the city said the pandemic also hindered the ability of challengers who may have lacked the name recognition of a well-known incumbent.

Williams added it wasn’t a difficult decision to endorse Duggan in the race and that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Chamber supports him.

“The council and mayor have worked well together,” Williams said. “They found a way to work their issues out to keep the city on sound financial footing.”

However, water activist Beulah Walker of the nonprofit Hydrate Detroit said Duggan has to speak out more for lower-income communities. The organization provides water deliveries and restoration to families experiencing shutoffs.

“The people that you see voted for Anthony Adams and Tom Barrow, those are the people that want to see change and those are the people that are suffering. The other votes Duggan got, those are the people that benefit off what he’s doing,” Walker said. “We have a class divide here in the city of Detroit. If you’re making $75,000, maybe $100,000, you’re fine with what the mayor is doing because you can pay your property taxes, you can put food on the table. Anything under that, you’re struggling.”

Proposal P fails

As a water and housing rights activist, Walker was a major proponent for Proposal P, a ballot question which sought to amend the city’s charter.

Proposal P was shot down by voters with 67% voting against and 33% supporting it. Supporters sought to revise the city’s governing document to push toward a more just and equitable Detroit, including better access to broadband internet, greater water affordability, and a task force or commission on reparations and justice for African Americans.

“As we can see, somebody didn’t like it and look at where we’re at,” Walker said, taking aim at Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for opposing the revisions. “They fiercely advocated for city of Detroit residents not to have basic needs.”

Duggan on Tuesday touted Horace Sheffield and his son Ed Duggan for leading efforts to block Proposal P from passing, citing Sheffield’s lawsuit against the proposal in court and his son running a “No on Proposal P” campaign which emphasized how expenses the proposed changes would be. But even in losing on primary day, Charter Revision Commissioner Richard Mack said the unsuccessful campaign to pass the ballot measure showed true grassroots activism.

“It showed how much Detroiters cared about their city,” Mack said.

Detroit city clerk thrives

Longtime Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey dominated Tuesday’s primary against a slew of competitors. Election night results show she won about 70% of the votes cast, far outpacing challengers whose campaigns highlighted issues they see with Winfrey’s performance as the city’s chief election administrator.

Detroit Charter Commissioner Denzel McCampbell was a distant second place, garnering 15.3% of the vote and appears to have an uphill climb in his quest to unseat Winfrey.

Winfrey has emphasized her experience running dozens of elections in the state’s largest city in her bid for reelection. While she has acknowledged problems with election administration that have occurred under her watch such as ensuring the number of ballots counted matches the number of ballots recorded as cast in the poll books, she has vowed to make improvements.

But McCampbell has argued that during Winfrey’s tenure, elections have not run smoothly as they should and that there is a need to expand access to the ballot box. McCampbell has said increasing voter participation and civic engagement generally in non-election years would be a priority if elected.

City Council incumbents move on

Maybe one of the most powerful signs of incumbency is a lack of any challenger. Several city council races did not see a primary challenger, likely meaning the incumbents will easily win the November election.

Still, there will be some closer match-ups. The neck-and-neck competition for council’s contested at-large seats Tuesday night pitted incumbent Councilmember Janeé Ayers, who finished at the top with 30.86% of the vote against Coleman Young II with 30.54%. In addition to Ayers and Young, Mary Waters and Nicole Small will be on the November ballot for the two at-large seats representing all of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Here are the details of the other city council races on the ballot Tuesday:

District 1 incumbent Councilmember James Tate, Jr. topped the race with 72.08% of the vote. He will face Krystal Larsosa in the November election.

District 2 incumbent Councilmember Roy McCalister Jr. and Angela Calloway will face off the general.

District 3 Councilmember Scott Benson will move on without a challenger.

District 4 candidates Latisha Johnson and M.L. Elrick swept up the votes to face off in November for Councilmember Andre Spivey’s seat. Spivey, who was recently indicted on alleged bribery charges, was not seeking reelection.

District 5 Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield will move on without a challenger.

District 6 candidates Hector Santiago and Gabriela Santiago-Romero will face off in the general election.

District 7 candidates Frederick Durhal and Regina Ross will compete for former Councilmember Gabe Leland’s seat. Leland was recently sentenced to probation for misconduct in office.

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