DETROIT – Candidates in Detroit’s mayoral primary are racing to lead what soon could be the largest U.S. city ever to go through a bankruptcy, while yielding complete control of its finances to a state-appointed emergency manager.
As polls opened Tuesday, the biggest name and most prominent issue in the struggling city are Kevyn Orr and his Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing.
Some of the favourites for mayor have come out against the filing, and say they will work with Orr only if they have to.
“My pitch to him is, ‘You’re here to straighten out the finances. You have no municipal government experience,'” said Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. “The emergency manager puts the budget together. The mayor should be able to set the priorities.”
Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, and accountant Tom Barrow contend Orr was illegally appointed as emergency manager.
“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.”
They are among 14 candidates on the ballot and two write-ins seeking to succeed Mayor Dave Bing who is not seeking re-election.
The top two vote-getters in will face off in the November general election, with the winner moving into City Hall with a title, $158,000 salary and — as things stand now — little else.
None of the candidates has name recognition outside the city like Bing, a former NBA great.
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.
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.
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 per cent to 17 per cent of Detroit’s registered voters are expected to cast ballots Tuesday, according to city elections officials.
“My preference would be for the governor to dissolve the emergency manager and let the mayor represent the city in bankruptcy court,” said Mike Duggan, former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center.
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.”