It wouldn’t be election time in Detroit if grown men weren’t bickering like toddlers, and the airwaves weren’t flooded with empty, self-serving promises. But it is, and they are: The all-too-familiar grandstanding that’s come to characterize Detroit mayoral politics has returned, this time with a new contestant and more flare. Incumbent mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former deputy mayor Freman Hendrix, in vying for the support of the city’s 400,000 registered voters, have resorted to character assassinations, each too focused on reputation to address the elephant in the room: a segregated, crime-riddled and decaying Detroit. If this election is to mark a meaningful change for the better, real visions must replace empty rhetoric and discussion must shift toward issues that hold actual bearing on the city’s welfare.
Though not from his campaign, Hendrix proved himself a qualified and effective leader while working as deputy mayor under former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. But the mudslinging that’s come to define Detroit’s political climate overshadows policy success and leadership qualifications, lowering even the most seasoned politicians to name-calling.
The candidates spent much of the first two debates taking turns on the chopping block. Hendrix spent a large share of his speaking time detailing Kilpatrick’s off-the-clock exploits, paying special attention to an allegedly obscene party at the mayoral mansion last May. For his part, Kilpatrick dedicated valuable speech time to discussing a survey of how many of his opponent’s relatives have been in jail.
Voters are partly to blame for allowing this race to operate on the personal level. Without demands for accountability, candidates can successfully avoid pressing policy concerns, instead shifting the campaign toward the mundane, where questions such as whether Hendrix shovels his own driveway become election swingers. A recent survey conducted by WDIV and The Detroit News found that Detroit voters care most about jobs, the local economy and the city budget. Though pressing issues like education and government leadership showed up at the bottom of the list, the poll still suggests that voters are more concerned about public policy than personal character. The challenge now is to make the candidates work to show they care about these issues too.
The latest polls show Kilpatrick gaining ground on Hendrix, though he still faces a double-digit deficit. Certainly, the mayor’s cavalier attitude over the last four years has won him many enemies. Nearly 41 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for anybody over Kilpatrick. But unless Detroit voters realize that Kilpatrick’s failures were as much the product of a complacent electorate as it was of his inept administration, little will change after this election cycle. The voters must show the candidates that they have to produce results to win.
If the next mayor is elected without a popular mandate for dramatic, concrete reform, Detroit residents can expect another four years of careless governance and economic stagnation. In wrapping up the second debate, Kilpatrick said, “The city doesn’t need a fix, it needs a complete revolutionary change. There are serious things the mayor has to do – Detroiters want to hear some cognitive skills.” Truer words he never spoke, now it’s time for him and his opponent to live up to them.