Susan J. Demas: Young Goes Scorched Earth in Detroit Mayoral Race

Michigan state Senate sessions tend to be rather drab affairs.


With Republicans holding a vice grip on the chamber since 1984 and currently controlling 71 percent of seats, there typically hasn’t been too much drama in the hundreds of sessions I’ve sat through. When the GOP wants to pass something, there’s usually not much Democrats can do.

That’s never deterred Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit), who consistently delivers the most memorable speeches on the floor, often as an act of protest. With his hypnotic preacher-like cadence, Young usually begins with a quote from a dizzyingly long list of luminaries, which has included former President Richard Nixon, Albert Einstein and poet James Weldon Johnson. (This ritual even inspired a @SenColemanQuote Twitter account).


In case you drifted off or checked your email while Young was at the podium, he’d make you regret it by busting out a gem, like he did last term by announcing with a broad grin, “I’d like to start out with a quote … from myself.”

Many politicos and pundits have been inclined to write him off as a goofy millennial riding the coattails of his legendary father, the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young. But the senator happens to be one of the few legislators I’ve covered who actually reads most of the bills he votes on. And he’s surprised quite a few lobbyists and policy wonks who expected brief, joke-filled meetings with him and instead were treated to a barrage of thoughtful, detail-laden questions.

Young will be term-limited next year at the ripe old age of 36. So it makes sense that he decided to follow in his papa’s footsteps this year and embark on his second Detroit mayoral campaign. Name ID would never be a problem.

But taking on a popular incumbent has been. Mike Duggan, the former Detroit Medical Center CEO, became the city’s first white mayor in decades after the near unheard-of feat of winning the 2013 primary as a write-in candidate.

There’s no question that Detroit has made progress under Duggan, especially since emerging from bankruptcy three years ago. All you have to do is stroll through downtown and Midtown, flecked with the kind of hipster-haven bars and restaurants you’d expect to see in Chicago. Real-estate developers are gobbling up property and rents are soaring. And some of your out-of-state relatives have probably stopped asking if you got carjacked every time you go to Ford Field.

But many of the city’s longtime residents living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods far from the glitzy new Little Caesars Arena aren’t feeling the love. And progressives have never liked Duggan, a business-friendly pragmatist who’s not afraid to cut deals with Republicans, like with his auto insurance package crafted with House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt).

Young should be a solid Duggan alternative. He’s young, charismatic and consistently one of the Senate’s most liberal members in Inside Michigan Politics’ annual rankings.

But his campaign was greeted with a yawn from much of the metro Detroit media that’s always been convinced Duggan is a lock. In the eight-way Aug. 8 primary, Duggan won 67 percent of the vote, trouncing Young by 40 points.

So it’s not surprising that Young has opted to make race his closing argument before Nov. 7. That’s what everyone expected when he hired felonious former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick whisperer Adolph Mongo.

There’s the SuperPAC ad accusing Duggan of Kilpatrick-level corruption, but noting only Kwame is behind bars. The reason? “It’s as simple as black and white,” the ad intones. Young went back to this well repeatedly in last week’s mayoral debate, prompting Duggan to frequently call him a “liar.”

And Young has announced a “Take Back the Motherland” rally on election eve. If you were trying to brainstorm an event to make the Fox News, Infowars and Breitbart outrage machines go berserk, you probably couldn’t do much better than this. We should all pray that the neo-Nazis who periodically parade around Charlottesville, Va., don’t decide to take a road trip up to Motown that night.

But if you’re a talented politician with a great name and decades left to make your mark, as Young is, this scorched-earth strategy probably isn’t helpful. It’s a shame that more people around the senator haven’t told him that.

And it’s a shame for Detroit, a city that’s still grappling with serious problems of poverty, poor schools, blight and crime. Citizens deserved a mayoral race that addressed those issues, not a sideshow with theatrics destined to become an ominous segment on “Fox and Friends.”

Maybe next time.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.