Former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan means many different things to different people. Since he launched his campaign for mayor of Detroit, the former Wayne County prosecutor has encountered various political potholes, leaving some of his critics wondering if he could possibly be stopped.
From being kicked off the ballot by two courts to mounting an unbelievable and highly successful write-in-campaign to now setting his eyes on getting elected in the November general election, Duggan, in the eyes of his supporters and some critics is a “bulldog” who will not stop until his mission is accomplished.
Despite winning the August primary election which some of his critics dispute because of ballot boxes that were not properly tabulated, Duggan’s campaign is moving forward. It is an uphill battle because general election voters differ from primary voters.
“We would not be in this campaign if we didn’t set our sights on winning. Our strategy is to work exceptionally hard until we cross the line,” said Duggan’s 27-year-old Harvard educated campaign manager, Bryan Barnhill. “We are not about outworking our opponent but outworking ourselves so we can consistently analyze data, our mistakes and continue to innovate.”
Barnhill, who served as director of policy and legislative affairs for former Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, said he believes in the promise of the Duggan campaign, which is what attracted him to the candidate and his mission.
“What I first heard was that Mike is someone who gets things done. I heard he was a bulldog and a tough negotiator,” said Barnhill.
But Barnhill noted that he also heard about the Edward McNamara machine, the once powerful political machine that was manned by Michigan’s then most influential Democrat, Edward McNamara.
The McNamara machine produced many offspring, including Duggan, who was top deputy to McNamara, as well as former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and former mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix as well as McNamara’s chief of staff, Bernard Kilpatrick, father of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
The political machine was detested by those who said it was a cesspool of political corruption and patronage when it came under federal investigation. Duggan has never been accused of wrongdoing.
Barnhill said the reputation of the McNamara machine concerned him.
“I heard about the McNamara machine to the point that I developed appreciation for the importance of a good reputation in politics,” Barnhill said. “I heard about the good. I heard about the bad that just didn’t add up. So when I met with Mike and his advisors, I pressed them about it. The thing that assuaged my anxiety was the team that he assembled to work on his campaign.”
Barnhill was also convinced because Duggan had never been accused of any illegal acts as part of the McNamara team and that allayed his fears. He went to work for Duggan who wanted a team of young professionals concerned about the future of the city.
“I assembled folks and his talk to a group of young leaders was so riveting. He did a great job of helping me understand the power of young people in making a difference,” Barnhill said. “After that involvement I began volunteering and he asked me to be his campaign manager.”
But for Barnhill, among the most vexing questions on the campaign trail is that of working to elect a White mayor in Detroit for the first time in 40 years.
As an African-American who went to Harvard to study government where he was a minority, worked in New York as an investment analyst before deciding to come back home after being tired of seeing negative images and stories about Detroit in the national media, emanating from the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal, Barnhill says he takes the question of whether the city can elect a White candidate seriously.
“Growing up with Black people, being taught by Black teachers as I was raised in Detroit, shaped by outlook and made me have a profound appreciation for my identity,” said Barnhill who graduated from Renaissance High School. “It also made me profoundly sympathetic about the state of Black people globally.”
When the opportunity was presented to work for Duggan, he rationalized the wider implications of working to elect a non-Black candidate in a majority African-American city where race has been among the most dominant issues that frequently cuts across political and socioeconomic lines.
“Because there is a fear of this grand experiment of a Black metropolis that has failed. From the election of Coleman Alexander Young in the waning days of the Civil Rights Movement that saw the creation of major Black cities, Detroit has remained hugely significant in Black history,” Barnhill said. “I can appreciate that attitude that having a White mayor is an affront to the legacy of Black political leadership.”
But Barnhill also said it is interesting that those who oppose Duggan have begun raising issues around Black empowerment to justify their opposition to his election in November. And that, he said, is even more true in what he calls “the folklore that existed for a long time that one day White people are going to come and take over this city, and that is being heightened by the movement of young Whites moving downtown and Midtown.”
Is it a contradiction for Barnhill to be pro-Black empowerment and spearhead an effort to elect a non-Black candidate?
“As I thought about it, it is a resounding no,” Barnhill said. “I think Black empowerment must occur in two phases.”
The first phase, according to Barnhill, who did a stint at Southwest Business Solutions, is what he describes as the “individual empowerment which is really about the extent to which we remove legal, social and psychological barriers that serve as an impediment to individual Black achievement.”
The second, Barnhill said, is “collective empowerment,” which he believes Duggan will be doing if he becomes mayor of this majority Black city, helping to address the crisis facing African-Americans in urban centers such as this one.
“Mike’s platform will resoundingly benefit collective Black empowerment in this city and beyond,” Barnhill said. “Evaluating a candidate purely on the basis of skill set and background instead of race will have tremendous benefit for the people who are overwhelmingly African-American.”
Duggan’s winning in the primary, some say, is owed to his large campaign war chest because he is the favorite of most business leaders, disadvantaging his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon.
Some of Napoleon’s supporters have charged that Duggan is trying to buy the election. However, Barnhill dismissed any suggestion or assertion that the election is being bought, that Duggan is only winning because of huge campaign contributions.
“Money helps you spread your message. If your message doesn’t stick you can have infinite funds and get nowhere,” Barnhill fires back at campaign critics.
The Duggan campaign manager said electoral history is rife with instances of where “more moneyed candidates failed.” He cited recent Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney who lost his bid for the presidency despite the war chest and support of Wall Street giants.
So what is the strategy for the campaign heading into October?
“The strategy in the primary was to do small gatherings as much as possible because the citizens of Detroit needed a personal experience with Mike,” Barnhill explained. “Now our strategy is large gatherings where Mike can have an in-depth conversation about his campaign and platform. And we are using social media to accurately reflect the campaign message.”
Benny Napoleon’s campaign manager, Eddie McDonald, declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this series, saying his method of operation has always been to stay in the background.