In bankrupt Detroit, 16 vie for mayor

Downtown Detroit, including the General Motors World Headquarters (2nd L), is pictured from a vacant lot along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan July 21,...
Downtown Detroit, including the General Motors World Headquarters (2nd L), is pictured from a vacant lot along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan July 21,...
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The Detroit mayor’s race doesn’t feature a sexting politician or an incumbent accused of harassment, but it’s a race that matters, nevertheless.

The Michigan capital city was already in desperate straits before filing for bankruptcy last month–$18 billion in debt and a crime rate five times the national average. Mayor Dave Bing, who said in May he wouldn’t seek reelection, had already been largely stripped of power after the state took over in March.

Related: Fast food strike wave continues in the shadow of Detroit Bankruptcy 

The crowded fight to succeed Bing, and accept severely limited power over the troubled city, takes its next steps on Tuesday with the August 6 primary. The top two finishers from the crowd of 16 in the all-party primary will advance to the November runoff. It’s likely that both candidates in November will be Democrats.

The race took an unexpected turn after the one of the frontrunners, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan, was kicked off the ballot, with a judge ruling that he hadn’t lived in the city long enough to qualify for the ballot. Duggan’s chief rival is current Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.

Duggan, who is the only white candidate in the race, would be the first non-African-American mayor of the majority black city since 1974. He has far outraised the other candidates. Now that he can’t have his name on the ballot, he’s running as a write-in candidate, and could be successful. Duggan only needs to come in second to get his name on the November ballot.

The biggest complication for Duggan? A barber by the name of Mike Dugeon–same pronunciation, slightly different spelling–announced last week he’s also running as a write-in candidate. The new Dugeon has no political experience and has never even voted, and Duggan says the surprise candidate is nothing but a plant from Napoleon’s campaign, which the sheriff’s campaign has denied.

“As soon as this individual filed, his Facebook page went from a series of bizarre rants to beautiful graphics copying all of mine, and then being pushed out by the Napoleon folks on social media,” Duggan told WWJ in Detroit. “This was executed from beginning to end by Napoleon.”

“My prediction is that [Duggan] is going to finish in the top two, and he’s going to make the runoff,” said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “That will be a big deal. It’s very, very difficult and very unusual for write-in candidates. He doesn’t necessarily have to win, just finish second.”

In debates, Duggan has given the correct spelling of his own last name, and even released a jingle to help voters remember his surname.

The Napoleon-Duggan fight has been the main event, but there are a handful of second tier candidates to watch. Tom Barrow has run for mayor three times and lost, and served 18 months in jail for tax evasion. Krystal Crittendon was let go as the city’s lawyer and now hopes to channel anger over the state’s takeover of the city. State Rep. Fred Durhal and former state Rep. Lisa Howze are also worth watching.

Whoever wins will have limited power, with Kevyn Orr running the city as the emergency manager appointed by the state. The candidates have all criticized the state’s influence over the struggling city. The new mayor would have little power initially to turn around the city, with Orr in charge of any major financial decision and hiring staff.

“At least the emergency manager will leave at some point and it will be turned back over to the mayor,” said Ballenger. “There are still going to be lots of challenges for the mayor and city council even if Detroit emerges from bankruptcy. Detroit is an ongoing horror story, it has been for 30 years, and it may be for 30 years more.”

msnbc’s David Murphy contributed to this report.

In bankrupt Detroit, 16 vie for mayor