In Detroit, a Comeback for the Ages?

There's a slight chance that one of the most remarkable come-from-behind victories in political history could take place in Detroit next week. Sound like ...
by | October 28, 2009

There's a slight chance that one of the most remarkable come-from-behind victories in political history could take place in Detroit next week. Sound like hyperbole? Well, allow me to explain.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing won 74% of the vote in an all-candidate primary in August. His closest challenger, accountant and two-time losing candidate Tom Barrow (who once spent more than a year in prison due to a tax evasion conviction), took 11%. Bing and Barrow advanced to the November general election, which appeared to only be a formality, with Barrow playing the role of inconsequential gadfly.

Yet now people in Detroit are starting to wonder whether the accountant and two-time losing candidate has a chance -- as I said, a slight chance -- to win.

A respected Michigan polling firm, EPIC-MRA, released a survey last week that showed Bing leading just 47% to 26%. In other words, Barrow was turned a 53-point deficit into a 21-point deficit in less than three months.

Now, of course, a 21-point deficit a couple of weeks before the election isn't easy to make up. Still, there are several reasons to think that Barrow has a remote chance, if only a remote chance, to win.

Bing is under 50% in that poll. What's more, 51% of respondents say his performance as mayor is "only fair" or "poor."

If there's one place where you shouldn't be surprised to be surprised, it's Detroit. Four years ago, every poll said that Freman Hendrix was going to comfortably defeat mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. One poll from late October even showed Hendrix with a 20-point lead. Kilpatrick won by 6 points.

To add to the uncertainty, there's plenty of doubt as to how many voters are going to show up. This will be the fourth time Detroit has voted for mayor this year. The city has already held a special primary, a special general election (to replace Kilpatrick, who went to jail) and a regular primary. Bing's backers could be complacent.

Plus, Barrow has a message. He's playing the role of plucky underdog, but he's not running a gentle campaign. Barrow is calling Bing a rich, out-of-touch suburbanite. His supporters would probably call that populism. Bing's supporters might call it class warfare. Barrow even called Bing a Republican.

That message could resonate because of the steps Bing has taken in his short time as mayor. Bing's popularity has fallen because, with Detroit in fiscal crisis, he's cut back on bus routes and threatened to reduce the salaries of city workers. Public employee unions are backing Barrow.

Any election like this one invariably is compared to David and Goliath. And, the Detroit News has called Bing a "fundraising Goliath." Then again, Bing made it to the N.B.A. Hall of Fame as a shooting guard, not a center. More to the point, he's still something close to a political neophyte. Plus, he leads a city that faces such severe troubles that no politician can ever be completely safe.

Nor is Barrow exactly like the Biblical David. He placed respectably in the 1985 and 1989 mayoral elections. In the 1989 race he even outpaced U.S. Rep. John Conyers in the primary before losing to  Coleman Young, the incumbent, in the general election.

On the other hand, Barrow's campaign is so underfunded that he doesn't have a single paid staff member. David, at least, could afford a slingshot.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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