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The Depths of Detroit’s Political Impotency


Michiganders will go to the polls this year to elect a governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Unfortunately, the state’s largest city will only play a cameo role in the outcome. If recent voter participation is a future indicator, the majority of Detroiters will exercise their right to watch the results from the sidelines.

Bill Milliken Coleman YoungAt no time in modern political history has the city been more irrelevant in determining the outcome of this important statewide exercise. Consider, for example this historical perspective:

The 1st and 13th Congressional Districts were once the largest voting districts in the state. Both emerged from reapportionment after the 1960 census and were powerfully situated within the borders of the city.  This realignment made Michigan the first state since Reconstruction with two black congressmen – John Conyers and Charles C. Diggs.

At the time, it was generally accepted that no statewide candidate could win election without courting city voters and amassing significant votes in Detroit. In the late 1970s and 1980s, former Republican Gov. Bill Milliken recognized he could survive politically by establishing a Detroit/Lansing connection with former Democrat Mayor Coleman Young. Detroit, in turn, benefitted from the relationship, which no longer has an upside for either political party.

Today, only a portion of the 13th Congressional District remains in Detroit. The 13th stretches well beyond the city’s borders, dramatically dispersing what was once Detroit’s political muscle and influence. Detroit is neither the first or last stop on the candidate campaign trail.

Detroiters also lost their will to vote. In last year’s citywide election, for example, voter turnout in the August primary and November general elections last year were 13.9 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively. These elections provide evidence that the electorate did not turn out against first-term Mayor Mike Duggan, but did not turn out in large numbers for him either.

Mike DugganDetroiters, though, continue to vote with their feet. Middle-class blacks closely followed the out-migration of the white middle class to the suburbs. It is a revolt against the inability of previous administrations to fight back the wave of failed education, high taxes, depleted services and gratuitous crime and violence.

Although the stampede from the city has slowed, it still outpaces the rate of those willing to move into Detroit. This does not bode well for a quick fix or long-term recovery.

An overwhelming dissatisfaction with the candidates is one reason most discouraged voters or nonvoters give for their disinterest. Studies also show the lower down the class structure one goes, the lower the participation rate becomes. Almost three quarters of city residents are elderly, low-income, uneducated or under-educated and unemployed or underemployed. Most don’t see politicians – black or white – as essential to improving their condition. But does the voting trend transcend apathy or poverty?

Whatever the reasons, Democrat and Republican contenders can be expected to spend the bulk of their time and resources stumping where people are motivated more by improving their access to the economic mainstream than propping up the failed status quo. No one should be deceived into thinking that the 2018 election turns on Detroit’s turnout. Upwardly mobile voters, who make up the new breed of urban voters, have established roots in Oakland, Macomb and out-county Wayne.

None of this is welcome news to Mayor Duggan or for passage of his broad legislative and regional cooperation agenda. One thing for sure – Detroit no longer has the clout to dictate the terms of engagement. So going forward, Lansing may be even less inclined to work a deal on insurance reform, or throw more government largesse Detroit’s way, when the odds that the mayor can influence elections are slim to none.

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