Whatever your opinion of Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, no one can deny that the guy is a consummate politician. For nearly 16 years, he’s used the power of his office to build a political machine that’s achieved stunning success.
His grip on the county’s top elected position has been ironclad, and his ability to help promising protégés gain key offices remarkable. Former U.S. Attorney Saul Green, current Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm and Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan are, to one degree or another, all beholden to Big Ed and his skill at making campaign contributions flow like beer at a frat party. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to recognize that, when the occasional million-dollar no-bid contract lands in the hands of family-connected businesses, it doesn’t hurt to have former staff members populating offices that wield investigative powers.
Now the king is abdicating his throne, and the race to succeed him has so far been … sort of a snooze.
“It’s not that the candidates aren’t appealing,” observes political consultant Mario Morrow. “It’s just that none of them are very exciting. It’s like they’re all a bunch of businessmen. Put it this way: If you were to have a fund-raiser, and the prize was going out to lunch with one of these guys, you wouldn’t raise very much money.”
Political consultant Adolph Mongo calls it a campaign that would “have made Abe Lincoln proud, one where you just sit around on the front porch, meet with the folk and say nothing important. Unless you know the candidates personally, or have been around, I don’t think voters know what anybody stands for.”
This much, everybody knows: This race is all about the Democrats. The county is so overwhelmingly Democratic that whoever emerges from the GOP side of the Aug. 6 primary will be a sacrificial goat come November’s general election.
Officially there are eight Democrats vying for the office, but if the polls are to be believed, it’s really a two-man race between Sheriff Robert Ficano and former Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon. A poll conducted by Lansing’s EPIC/MRA late last month showed the two cops were virtually even, with Napoleon holding a one-point edge at 29 percent. At that point, 30 percent of the voters were still undecided.
On paper, anyway, County Commission Chairman Ricardo Solomon should be a strong contender. He knows the issues inside out, has gained endorsements from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, Duggan and the influential Fannie Lou Hamer PAC.
Even so, the EPIC poll showed him collecting only 4 percent of the vote.
“The polls that have been reported do not reflect what we feel and see out there every day on the campaign trail,” insists Steve Wasco, press secretary for the Solomon campaign.
As Wasco points out, “In the past, polls have shown themselves to be marvelously wrong. We saw that most recently in the last Detroit mayor’s race.”
Even so, Solomon faces a name-recognition problem outside his own commission district, despite being chairman for the past eight years, and he’s likely to be outspent by Ficano by as much as 2-to-1.
By press time, Ficano had raised about $1.2 million, says his press secretary Sharon Banks.
“Did you ever see that movie Sixth Sense?” asks Mongo when assessing Solomon’s chances. “You know how the little boy in that movie says, ‘I talk to lots of dead people who don’t know they’re dead’? That’s the Solomon campaign.”
The situation’s not much different for the other two Dems considered serious candidates, State Sen. Joe Young and county Register of Deeds Bernard Youngblood.
So the conventional wisdom is that it’s cop vs. cop.
One thing to watch for, predicts EPIC/MRA pollster Ed Sarpolus, is a flurry of negative advertising as Election Day approaches. With two candidates locked in a dead heat like this, it is almost inevitable that one will start hurling mud in an attempt to break ahead.
His guess is that it will be the Ficano camp that will throw the first punch.
But Banks says Ficano has no intention of running negative ads.
“We are not attempting to engage in that at all,” she says. “We’ll concentrate on his record and the endorsements we received.”
If Ficano were to go that route, he’d have the money to do it. He also has the most apparent ammunition: Napoleon’s record running the Detroit Police Department.
It is unlikely the U.S. Justice Department will be releasing its long-awaited report (on an investigation of the police department begun toward the end of the Archer administration) before voters cast their ballots. But there is all the stuff that is known: Cops shooting citizens at a record-setting pace; the dismal rate of solving homicides (despite the misguided practice of hauling in witnesses caught up in dragnets); and a reporting system so flawed the FBI refused to accept the city’s crime statistics.
Napoleon’s record as chief could certainly explain why he didn’t get the endorsement of the once-powerful Black Slate, the political arm of the Shrine of the Black Madonna that was perceived as the maker of kings as far back as the early days of Coleman Young. The Shrine had problems with the Archer administration in general, and the police shooting issue in particular.
But that doesn’t explain why a black nationalist group would bypass an African-American candidate such as Solomon in favor of the white Ficano — unless, of course the members are hedging their bets and going with the guy most likely to win.
“It is not the first time we have endorsed a white candidate,” says Cardinal Baye Lande, Black Slate field operations director. “We have endorsed white candidates throughout the state of Michigan.”
Lande says that the group wrestled with its decision, but went with Ficano over Solomon because “We think it will take someone of tremendous skill, not to take anything from Solomon. He has done some things, but not much to make himself established as a leader that the executive office needs. We think that is Ficano.”
Ficano also gained an unlikely semiendorsement from McNamara. There’s a long history of bad blood between the two, which would explain why Big Ed has refused to throw his full weight behind Ficano. But he at least signaled support by showing up at a recent fund-raiser, and several members of his staff, likely with an eye on continued employment after the election, are working on the Ficano campaign.
At this point, say at least a few observers, Ficano appears to hold the edge heading into the last three weeks of the campaign. But, in terms of elections, that’s a lot of time. Plans are in the works to hold at least a few high-profile debates, and the ad blitz is yet to come.
The question that will take even longer to answer is whether the eventual winner will, for better or worse, be able to establish the kind of power base McNamara enjoyed.
Some say it’s possible, but doing so will take time. Mongo, however, doesn’t think it will happen — no matter who wins.
“Things are changing,” he observes. “With campaign finance reform becoming more of an issue and other changes, I don’t think you’re going to have these kinds of dynasties anymore. For Michigan, I truly think Ed McNamara represents the last of the political machines.”Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]