Mike Duggan won the 2013 Detroit mayor’s race, becoming the city’s first White mayor in 40 years, a seismic political shift in a majority African-American city that underscores a growing frustration over fractured political leadership in this town that has not tended to the basic needs of taxpaying residents.
But if you are scratching your head and wondering how it happened that Duggan defeated his opponent Benny Napoleon so handily in what was once expected to be Napoleon’s race to lose, just compare how each campaign executed its strategies.
Duggan began his journey to the mayorship with house meetings introducing himself to residents of the city and building personal relationships. That was important for Duggan because he was not only a White candidate, he was also one many city voters were not familiar with, or only casually familiar. He didn’t have the name recognition that Napoleon and others, including Tom Barrow, had in the city.
So it was important for Duggan’s campaign to introduce their candidate to the voters on a personal level, which carries significance because the personal touch with voters often has proven in politics to carry more weight.
The ability to connect with voters, share their frustrations, especially in their own homes, has sway for a voter who has never had the privilege of a visit by a mayoral candidate or any other significant political candidate.
In total, Duggan had almost 250 house parties organized by his campaign. Even though he had the advantage of fundraising and had the backing of the corporate power structure, that still did not mitigate the power and influence of those meetings because personal interactions do sway voters more than what is written or advertised on television or radio.
Napoleon, on the other hand, did not have those house meetings. He did not need to because he is a known entity in this town. He is a former Detroit police chief and one who, like he said on the campaign trail, has been a part of this community for decades. He is a native son.
But Napoleon’s campaign misread the tea leaves. Detroit is at a crucial point. For decades politicians have failed their constituents in this town, and grinding poverty has become commonplace.
Would voters appreciate any candidate who visited that many homes and spent two hours explaining how the candidate can change things for them?
The fact that you took time to visit their homes shows a personal concern about their well-being. The skeptics will conclude that it is only because of votes, but it still matters that you want to engage and seek opinions of those who would make the decision at the ballot box in their own sanctuary (home). People feel important, cared about and loved when you take the time to spend two or three hours in their homes.
Despite his name recognition, Napoleon’s campaign should have launched his own house meetings and call them “Making Crime History,” where he could have detailed his crime plan in the individual homes of voters and explain to them why he was more suitable than Duggan to become the next mayor, even with an emergency manager in place.
Given that crime has been the dominant issue, Napoleon had an advantage over Duggan and he should have revisited his own crime policies when he was police chief (both the good and the bad) and tell voters what worked during his tenure and how his mayorship will take on crime in the city.
But he never did.
Another issue that Napoleon’s campaign misjudged was the question of race. Several of his supporters, including surrogates, vehemently swore to me at events that there was no way Detroit could elect a White mayor. They were comfortable in believing that the general election voters would vindicate them and their political prognosis that Detroit is not ready for a mayor who was White would be proven correct.
While I advised them that history has shown that an effective campaign will yield more dividends than just the color of the candidate, some of Napoleon’s surrogates believed strongly that race was going to decide the election.
Perhaps that is the reason why Napoleon did not campaign as vigorously as he ought to have during the primary campaign. He almost stayed out of the way and let former candidate Tom Barrow seize the political stage challenging the legitimacy of Duggan’s campaign.
While Napoleon did not come out to attack Duggan being labeled a carpetbagger by Barrow, activist Robert Davis and others, it did not prevent the candidate from making a strong showing in the primary by offering a bold plan.
I was involved in two instructive primary debates where I saw Barrow edge over Napoleon, directly challenging Duggan because he knew the latter was going to be the front runner. In political parlance, Barrow, whose numbers were not moving up, was already carving out the race between himself and Duggan in the debates.
One of the debates was at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church on East Outer Driver hosted by Rev. Tellis Chapman and co-moderated by myself and AM1200 “Inside Detroit” host Mildred Gaddis.
During that debate, the candidates who made the best showings were Barrow and Krystal Crittendon because their campaigns at the very core (whether you agreed or disagreed with them) were anti-status quo with strong desire to send Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr back to Washington.
The final primary debate took place at Perfecting Church, organized and hosted by Pastor L. Marvin Winans. I was the moderator at that debate. Duggan was absent but Napoleon came and had an opportunity to differentiate himself from the the other candidates at the forum, but struggled to do so.
After the primary election, which Duggan won in a write-in campaign, Napoleon should have launched an offensive right away, attacking his opponent’s Detroit Medical Center turnaround record, but failed to do so.
In his first “Flashpoint” interview on WDIV after the primary, Napoleon did not go on the offense. Instead, he gave a very carefully crafted interview as if he was waiting on someone to tell the campaign what the next move was.
The next day I met with a staunch Napoleon supporter who gave a dismal review of his appearance on “Flashpoint,” and thought the candidate should have directly challenged Duggan on the show and demonstrate that he was a better alternative to his opponent.
As the underdog, his campaign had an opportunity to brand Duggan as the candidate of “big money politics” and deconstruct the turnaround record of the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center. Instead he initiated a brief “downtown vs. neighborhood” chorus but never fleshed out that theme on the campaign trail.
On the other hand, Duggan understood what was at stake. Being the visible favorite of big business is not a plus in mass politics in the age of campaign finance reform.
His campaign largess was unmatched which shows the influence of corporate politics, but also can undercut the independence of a candidate who was showing that his decisions were not made in the mahogany offices of corporate boardrooms but, rather, after consulting with voters who will elect him.
Duggan also touted his CEO record as an example of how he could turn things around in the city without any meaningful challenge from Napoleon. That record has Duggan’s critics wondering, especially after the U.S. Department of Justice slammed the DMC for “engaging in improper financial relationship with referring physicians,” in which the medical center paid $30 million settlement.
The DOJ in the release said it was the DMC that discovered that its physicians were involved in improper relationships when it was getting ready to sell to Vanguard. But beyond the DOJ settlement issue, Napoleon did not challenge any of Duggan’s credits at the DMC.
Duggan had former and current DMC employees praising his leadership at the flagship medical system, which further took away any serious challenge from Napoleon.
But Napoleon’s real campaign started in the waning days of the campaign when he issued bold challenges and finally began attacking Duggan’s DMC record. He seemed to have gained traction, but it was too late because those campaign themes should have been applied during the primary, not in the last remaining weeks of general election campaign.
I was involved in the last two televised debates before Tuesday’s election as a panelist, and during the first debate hosted by CBS 62 “Michigan Matters” and moderated by host Carol Cain, Napoleon came out strong and aggressive, challenging his opponent while Duggan, numerous times, focused on what he was going to do.
The challenges that Napoleon issued to Duggan in the first general election debate should have been done in the primary campaign.
Also in the last televised debate hosted by WXYZ and moderated by editorial director Chuck Stokes before Duggan made history in Detroit, Napoleon was unrelenting and appeared to have landed Duggan a strong punch in his closing remarks when he accused the media of favoring Duggan, and highlighted the candidate’s longtime non-residential status in Detroit.
These were themes that would have worked well with voters in the primary campaign, not in the last days of the general election campaign.It made Napoleon look desperate and ready to throw anything at his opponent.
One thing that stood out throughout the entire Napoleon campaign was the pitiful communication strategy, especially when compared to Duggan’s campaign. I was getting numerous releases in a week highlighting where the candidate was going next and what he was going to do. Duggan’s social media campaign equally captured everything the candidate was doing (and you really don’t need that much money to engage social media) and was letting the media know.
On the other hand, I could count how many media alerts I received from Napoleon’s campaign and at one time I wondered if there was really any significant communication happening there at all.
I ran into Rev. Greg Roberts, who was working on Napoleon’s campaign’s religious outreach at the Marriott Hotel-Renaissance Center. He walked right up to me inside the green room where several of the city’s prominent religious leaders were waiting to be ushered in to a banquet hall for the inauguration of Bishop P.A. Brooks, as the First Assistant Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), for which I was the master of ceremonies. Roberts did not waste any time asking my thoughts about the performance of both candidates and their campaigns.
I put it to him bluntly: “Your campaign communication is horribly inexcusable,” and he nodded his head and the impression I received from him was that “certain things were going to change,” and as the campaign moved further into the general election I saw that nothing changed.
In fact, Napoleon had hinted after the primary defeat that no major campaign staff shake-up would take place. There should have been a staff shake-up, especially when you lose to a right-in candidate.
Eddie McDonald, the campaign manager for Napoleon, is without doubt a brilliant strategist with a string of success records in the political terrain, but that should not have deterred the campaign from doing the needed surgical operation to give us a real mayor’s race.
It is even more urgent when your campaign for the most part was responding in the media to your chief opponent.
Was Napoleon’s campaign doomed to collapse? I don’t think so, but it could have saved itself from itself if it had implemented needed reforms right after the primary and set a new tone for the campaign, clearly laying out what was at stake.
Napoleon had it all. Few candidates run for office with the kind of name recognition Napoleon had.
Yes, Duggan had money, but history has shown that money is not the only factor in winning a campaign. Aside from its campaign war chest, Duggan executed a brilliant campaign strategy that allowed more people to donate to his campaign. If Napoleon had done the same, instilling doubt in the probability of a Duggan mayorship, it could have given some people confidence in donating to a Napoleon campaign.
Now when the history of this new seismic shift is recorded we cannot divorce the crucial fact that Duggan ran a smart and highly effective campaign.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and author of the forthcoming 2014 book on Detroit titled “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future with Courage.” His most recent book “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” deals with the politics of the religious right, black theology and the president’s faith posture across a myriad of issues with an epilogue written by former White House spokesman Robert S. Weiner. He is a political analyst at WDET-101.9FM (Detroit Public Radio) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York. Email him at email@example.com and visit www.bankolethompson.com.