First I received an email advertising a campaign fundraising event to meet “Detroit’s future first family.”
The flyer came from the Tom Barrow campaign, touting the boisterous and audacious mayoral candidate who some say is “crazy.”
But he is on a political crusade against his opponents, starting with Mike Duggan. None of the other candidates have sent out a flyer that was so blatant in its intent, and strongly claiming the mayorship of Detroit even before the votes are cast.
So is Barrow’s path an example of deranged political narcissism?
I don’t think so.
Barrow isn’t crazy. He is an intelligent man who knows and understands Detroit very well and has been through difficult times. In 1994, he was convicted by a federal grand jury for bank fraud, tax evasion and filing false tax returns. Barrow spent 18 months in prison despite trying to get the conviction overturned.
The number of times I’ve interacted with Barrow on the campaign trail, I’ve found him to be an affable and pleasant political pontificator who seems to have all of the answers to Detroit’s problems.
Spending a few minutes talking to Barrow at any political event leaves you wondering and thinking you had just engaged a political science lecturer specializing in Detroit and race politics.
That is Tom Barrow. Because he was there during the Coleman A. Young era and challenged the legendary mayor, he brings a wealth of history and knowledge of the time that gave birth to this current political dispensation.
But beyond having knowledge and history of the time that produced the current political landscape, lies the vexing question of competence and skills to become Detroit’s next mayor. After running so many times for mayor of Detroit, Barrow has yet to win, leaving doubts about whether he can be trusted with the city’s highest office.
He is managing to turn over what initially seemed to be a two-person race between Mike Duggan and Benny Napoleon, blowing it wide open.
By kicking Duggan off the mayoral ballot and having the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling in his favor, Barrow has created political turmoil in the race and positioning himself as a formidable candidate who should not be ignored by the media and the powers that be.
At a recent mayoral debate I co-moderated with Mildred Gaddis, host of “Inside Detroit” on WCHB AM1200 at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, Krystal Crittendon, another mayoral candidate accused me of being part of a media gang that had already called the race as a two-person race between Napoleon and Duggan.
I laughed at the accusation but Barrow quickly endorsed Crittendon’s cynicism, something that is part of the fabric of the politics in Detroit. And Barrow has been presenting himself as the most vocal cynical candidate, claiming to be the only purist in the race who is out to protect Detroit’s interests with clean hands and that every other person in the race is somewhat part of a grand conspiracy to take over Detroit.
He has basically lambasted every other candidate as status quo-driven, offering himself as the reincarnation of political modernity even though it has yet to work for him at the polls.
The politics of cynicism is effective because when you look around Detroit, aside from the downtown area, Midtown and the few other places that are flourishing, you do not see much that is encouraging.
When 7-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed, my photographer Andre Smith and I visited her home on Lillibridge on the city’s east side. We drove around scouting the neighborhood. As we drove we lamented the deplorable, unbelievable conditions and reflected on the fact that no child deserved to grow up in that kind of neighborhood.
But that’s part of the reality for many in Detroit, and the politics of cynicism offers hope to the masses of people who are cut out of the kind of existence lived by our political leaders. It’s the reality that informs protest candidates who, knowing very well that they can’t win on the question of crossover appeal, but at the very least can get the underserved issues to the forefront of the negotiating table.
Thus it makes sense that Barrow is thriving and his campaign is feeding off on that kind of politics, tapping into the anger of those frustrated with government services, and the double standards that manifest themselves at city hall.
Because it is easy to blame, and in a segregated city where race politics has always been a potent force, one can conveniently garner followers, not based on the policy questions, but on how explosive they can be in retelling the race narrative that has long dominated this region.
Therefore, Barrow can launch a character assassination attack against Duggan, branding him as an outsider and he even joked that he doesn’t have a Detroit accent, which leaves a lot to be desired and is telling for Whites who were born and raised in Detroit.
The politics of cynicism also allows for Napoleon to be painted by the likes of Barrow as a tool of a bigger power hovering around Detroit and waiting for the eventual decimation of African American political power in Detroit. I’ve heard that conversation before.
Will Napoleon also be viewed as an agent of the White power structure if he is supported by corporate Detroit?
What constitutes an agent and what defines a Detroiter? Should people’s sincerity be found in their humanity or their skin color? Should it matter what your ethnicity is or your social status in contributing to Detroit’s well-being? The parochial view with which some of us view the world is damaging to our collective progress. Race matters in our political and socioeconomic empowerment, but at whose expense?
Barrow knows very well that race politics is a powerful weapon and he is using it effectively to the benefit of his campaign while interestingly the other African American candidates in the race choose to avoid going that route.
Because politics has simply failed the masses for whom it is supposed to cater, and given that there has been no significant changes in the living conditions of people, they have reason to be cynical. They have a reason to believe that this is just another election that will not mean much.
When we look at the immediate past that’s informing this election — the Kwame Kilpatrick era — there are many reasons to be cynical and believe that politicians have nothing to offer the people they are claiming to serve.
When you look at where the city is and the public safety nightmare that has forced some of our senior citizens to be prisoners in their own homes, there is justification for being cynical. And Detroit has had four police chiefs in the last four years and nothing meaningful has happened with regard to public safety.
Barrow persuasively stands in the gap of the cynic and the frustrated, hitting them with political and racial narratives and reminding them of the sordid past and sins of this region.
Added to this political quagmire is the emergency financial manager, which is already like a political fuel that can be thrown into any kind of conversation, and spur immediate reaction.
In fact, the name of the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has become a political catch phrase because you can simply get votes by declaring “I’m running against Kevyn Orr” even with the financial emergency the city is facing as it met with creditors this week.
What Barrow is doing is something that has been part of every politics for a very long time. The majority who get shunned and shrugged off do make their wishes known and they reflect that in the candidacies of individuals like Barrow.
Even though he has yet to win the race for mayor, he is making enough noise on the campaign trail and raising the stakes and the issues that everyday people can relate to, making himself the candidate who goes up against the status quo.
With the campaign’s racial tinge evident by the attacks on Duggan being the only major White candidate, Barrow’s campaign is exactly using the kind of campaign the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party ran against Congressional Democrats in 2010 and subsequently took over Congress. They set their sights on Obama, unleashing all sorts of racial epithets while undermining the campaigns of Congressional Democrats and they won.
Even though Barrow is a long way from winning the race for mayor, his campaign has made a strong showing by way of his challenges, creating the perception that he is the number two man in the race.
But we will see as the politics of cynicism continues because public servants woefully failed the people.