There was Joe Harris, staid and buttoned-down, looking every bit the accountant that he is, passing out thousands of cheap plastic brooms with his picture pasted on them.
As stunts go, it wasn’t bad. A mayoral candidate whose campaign slogan is “the real clean sweep,” Harris took advantage of a recent festival at Hart Plaza in an attempt to kick some life into his struggling candidacy.
Sure, Harris was trying to reach voters directly. But, just as importantly, he was also attempting to get the media attention his vastly underfunded campaign so sorely needs if he’s going to start reaching a mass audience with his message.
Which, as messages go, isn’t bad: A product of the city’s public schools, Harris used the GI Bill to attend the University of Detroit, working his way through college with jobs in the foundry at Great Lakes Steel and on assembly lines at Ford and Chrysler. He became a CPA in the private sector, and taught at Wayne State University. Then, after earning an MBA from the University of Michigan, Harris was appointed Detroit’s auditor general in 1995. In that capacity he’s been combing through the city’s vast bureaucracy, department by department, for the past six years, looking for the places where it’s broken and recommending how to fix it.
“Nobody can match me on understanding the nuts and bolts of how this city functions,” says Harris matter-of-factly. “I know where the holes are, and what the weaknesses are in every department.”
All that, however, has failed to make even a ripple in this campaign. With no major endorsements and polls showing that he’s struggling even to make it into the single digits, Harris didn’t even rate an invitation to a recent forum featuring the “leading” mayoral candidates.
In the lingo of politics, the Harris campaign is having trouble gaining much “traction.”
He’s not alone.
In a field of 21 declared candidates, there is a tier of contenders — people who badly trail the frontrunners, but who have the sort of résumés and name recognition that ought to give them at least a long-shot chance of making it past the Sept. 11 primary — who have spent the campaign season toiling in relative obscurity, unable to reach a mass audience to tout their qualifications and present their platforms. Joining Harris in the group trying desperately to break into true contender status are former General Motors executive Bill Brooks and Charles Beckham, another former GM executive who ran the city’s Department of Water & Sewerage during the Coleman Young administration and who now heads an association of African-American businesses. All three are only registering in the single digits, according to the most recent polling results.
And then there’s Councilman Nick Hood III, who polls show to be ahead of that trio but still placing a distant third behind City Council President Gil Hill and state legislator Kwame Kilpatrick, both of whom are reaping the lion’s share of endorsements and, judging from campaign ads, the kind of contributions that usually come from deep-pocketed special interests.
With Dennis Archer unexpectedly deciding to forgo seeking a third term as Detroit’s mayor, you would think the resulting scramble to replace him would be as hot as a July barbecue.
But it hasn’t worked out that way.
“This is one of the driest primaries we’ve had in a number of years,” observes veteran political consultant Mario Morrow. “This crop has just not garnered the attention of the voters.”
Or, many complain, Detroit’s mainstream media.
For many of those of who have been following the race only through the coverage in Detroit’s two mainstream daily papers, there’s been an empty feeling to the coverage thus far. Anyone looking for heft and substance at this point would have a hard time saying they’ve been well served.
Jeff Taylor, metro editor for the Free Press, defends the coverage
“We’ve done a reasonable job of trying to keep people informed about the mayor’s race,” he told Metro Times, saying much more is in the offing.
“We had planned all along to write extensively through the month of August and into September about the political races. We have plans in place right now to do a significant number of stories on that front. I think that by the time election day rolls around, I’ll be very comfortable with the level of coverage we’ve given to candidates and issues.”
But to this point Lester Kenyatta Spence, an assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, gives both dailies a failing grade.
“I read the Free Press and The Detroit News on the Web every day, and I’ve seen almost nothing about the election,” says Spence, a Detroit native.
“The lack of coverage is really astonishing. This is a really crucial election for the city of Detroit, and it is like the papers are ignoring it.”
Back in early May, Detroit News public editor Luther Keith promised readers that coverage of the race was going to be thorough and extensive, with an emphasis placed on exploring both the issues facing the city and the candidates’ plans to address them.
“Let the campaign begin,” pronounced Keith.
And what’s happened since then?
“Up to this point we haven’t focused that much on the campaign in the way that we wanted to,” the News’ Robert Simison told Metro Times last week. “Until now, the election seemed like it was a long way away.”
But with the deadline for casting absentee ballots fast approaching, the News is just now beginning to kick into gear.
“We have three reporters hard at work digging into some of the issues,” reports Simison. “Within the next few weeks we are going to be reporting some fairly substantial stuff that will give our readers something to go on.”
Whether that coverage will come in time to make any difference to the Joe Harris campaign is an open question. With a budget of only about $100,000, he sees the next few weeks as crucial. Hoping to ignite voter interest, he’s going to funnel that money into radio ads.
“We’re betting the ranch on the next three weeks,” he says. “There’s no sense trying to stretch out our limited funds.”
The question is: Should a candidate like Harris, a nonpolitician without special-interest backing and no built-up constituency, expect that the media should be there playing the role of equalizer?
Of polls and funk
Over at the Free Press, coverage of the mayor’s race has included one thing the News has deliberately shied away from: poll results.
Three times since May the Freep has reported the results of polls indicating the significant cushion front-runner Gil Hill has built, and that challenger Kwame Kilpatrick is comfortably holding on to second place.
“Curiously noncompetitive,” is the way Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy describes the race. And that, he opines, does not make for good democracy.
Putting the situation into a perspective every good consumer can readily understand, Bernacchi points out, “The more aggressive the competition, the better the marketplace,” or, conversely, “a marketplace with one dominant force is not a healthy marketplace.”
Part of the blame for our current electoral funk, says Bernacchi, can be laid at the feet of Dennis Archer, who “unwittingly” created this situation by dropping the last-minute bombshell that he wouldn’t be seeking a third term.
With a few exceptions, potential candidates didn’t have time to lay the groundwork needed to mount strong campaigns.
It may also explain, at least in part, the absence thus far of thorough coverage of the race.
“I think the media was a little blindsided,” is the way Bernacchi put it.
Or, as candidate Beckham observes, “All I can make of it is that the traditional print media in Detroit doesn’t know what to do with this primary election.”
There have been other factors as well, such as the city’s big 300th birthday bash, which consumed so much of the media’s attention recently. You could see how the dailies wouldn’t want something as messy as electoral politics getting in the way of all that feel-good boosterism evident in the repeated front-page spectacle of all those tall ships visiting our fair city.
There is also a cynical perspective, one that sees the dailies as just another special interest satisfied with seeing the status quo maintained.
Beckham has a similar take: “I’ve been to at least 15 mayoral forums, some of which have been held by prominent groups, and the traditional media has not been there. There are a lot of stories they could be writing about, but they are choosing not to do it. If you were to read the papers you’d think there was not a major election going on. What they are doing is a disservice to Detroiters.”
Even the front-runner’s campaign staffers share that sentiment. “There has not been substantial media coverage of the campaign so far,” says Hill press secretary Teresa Blossom. “But absentee ballots are going to start being mailed out next week, so I think from here on out there will be more intense coverage.”
Blossom is apparently correct. With less than five weeks to go before the primary, it seems the dailies are ready to become fully engaged. The Free Press, for example, ran a brief story inside its metro section covering a candidate forum last week, and the News began a series of question-and-answer type articles with the leading candidates.
The question that can’t be answered is what difference it would have made had the metro area’s leading daily papers made the commitment to cover this race in-depth from the start?
Would Gil Hill’s dominant poll numbers have remained as strong had the mainstream media been raising questions about his close ties to casino interests, particularly those in Greektown? At the very least, it seems voters would be interested in seeing a thoughtful analysis of what their impact would be on a Hill administration.
Or what about the former cop’s strong support of the Police Department at a time when it is awash in controversy? With a Justice Department investigation under way, no city agency has been more controversial in recent years. Citizens were being shot and killed by officers at a per capita rate exceeding that of any of the country’s largest cities. Highly questionable procedures were routinely being used during homicide investigations, with witnesses being arrested without cause.
How willing would he be to clean up the mess that exists there, especially since it is one of his strongest bases of support?
Would he be holding on to such a commanding lead — not to mention hauling in the coffer-swelling campaign donations that tend to follow the leader — if articles exploring the situation were being splashed across the front page instead of pictures of the tall ships participating in Detroit’s 300th anniversary celebration?
And what about Kilpatrick? The 31-year-old son of Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick and Bernard Kilpatrick, chief of staff to Wayne County Chief Executive Ed McNamara, Kilpatrick has been described at a product of the same powerful political machine that supported incumbent Archer and played a large role in getting Jennifer Granholm elected state attorney general and putting Mike Duggan in place as Wayne County prosecutor.
Would it have affected his standing in the polls if there had been early articles taking a serious look at the McNamara machine, the ties it has to corporate special interests, big developers and contractors?
Even if these sorts of articles are in the offing, it could well be a case of too little too late.
As Bernacchi pointed out, the initial polls can be little more than a reflection of name recognition. But they serve an important use to the candidates who come out on top, because money and endorsements tend to flow to the front-runners.
Contracts and development deals are at stake, points out political scientist Spence.
The consequence is that these front-runners can reap a windfall of contributions, which then produces its own momentum.
“There is a certain synergy to the whole thing,” explains Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “Everything feeds off everything else. Placing high in the polls means more money coming your way, and having more money allows you to get your name out there more so that you have more name recognition, which means that you rise in the polls.”
Especially when there is an absence of any other vigorous coverage, those early polls can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy.
“You end up with a truncated election,” says Spence, “with one guy who’s basically about to win because he’s tight with the casinos and was in a couple of Eddie Murphy movies and another guy who’s in there because he’s tied up with the chief crony in Wayne County.”
Now, that’s not to say that these two aren’t the best candidates. The point is, how are voters to really know?
And its not just about the candidates themselves. Strong contenders can have an impact even if they are not elected. An example of that is the 1992 presidential election. Even though third-party candidate Ross Perot only pulled about 20 percent of the vote, his relatively strong showing put his primary issue of deficit reduction front-and-center, forcing the major party candidates to make paying down the national debt a priority.
At the very least, contends Spence, thorough coverage of the campaign from the start would have had one definite outcome: “The thing that’s certain is that there would be more people who are excited about this campaign.”
Ballenger, too, is dismayed at how the campaign and its coverage have played out thus far.
“The way I see it,” says the veteran political analyst, “what’s going on is not healthy.”
Assets and baggage
All this is not to say Hill or Kilpatrick aren’t qualified to be mayor. Hill, with his 11 years on City Council, is a proven vote-getter who has built up a loyal constituency. That he beat out eight opponents four years ago to obtain the council presidency is testament to his popularity.
Hill’s camp points out that his early lead in the polls is reflective of the work he’s done over the years to build a strong constituency.
“He likes interacting with people,” says spokesperson Blossom. “He’s always met regularly with block clubs, youths, seniors, in people’s homes. He’s done that on an almost daily basis.”
That, and the radio show he hosted for seven years, has put him in the front-runner’s spot.
As for Kilpatrick, regardless of his connections, someone attaining the status of House Democratic leader by a ripe young age has demonstrated remarkable political ability.
And it’s not as if other candidates in the races aren’t hauling their share of baggage as well. Beckham, for example, is toting around a felony conviction on his record, serving a prison term as the result of a bribery scandal that occurred while he was serving in the Young administration as head of the Department of Water & Sewerage. (For his part, Beckham suggests that many people in this community think that he played the role of sacrificial goat in a Young administration under attack by hostile feds; in that light, the conviction can serve as a “badge of honor.”)
As for Brooks, although running as an independent, his Republican background — he played a lead role in Elizabeth Dole’s Michigan presidential campaign before she dropped out of the race last year — isn’t much of a selling in a city where 95 percent of the vote went to Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
Nonetheless, each candidate insists he can overcome both his individual obstacles and the media’s lack of coverage by taking their campaigns directly to the people.
“I’m a nontraditional candidate running a nontraditional campaign,” says Brooks, who says he has a core staff of more than 200 volunteers and an estimated $1 million to spend on the primary. “We have a stealth campaign that we think is coming in under the radar.”
It is a tactic born, at least in part, out of frustration with the media.
“We’ve decided that we’re not going to spend one more minute thinking about the press.”
Instead, he and his volunteers will be taking the campaign’s message from “door to door, church to church, forum to forum.”
Beckham, too, remains undaunted.
“We’re doing a straight-up grassroots campaign,” he says. “We’re going after voters who haven’t been out (to the polls) in 15 years. We think there’s a lot of people out there who are pretty pissed off about what’s going on, and who are angry enough to come out. I think this community is in a throw-the-rascals-out mood. That’s who we want to reach.”
What keeps Beckham hopeful is a lesson he learned from his political mentor.
“Coleman Young used to say ‘Detroit voters may be apathetic, but they’re not stupid. Whenever you get in trouble, take it back to the people, because they will respond.’”
The election now is at a crucial stage.
“This is when you win it or lose it, during the dog days of summer,” says Beckham. “Everybody’s camp is going to be tested. And having the most money doesn’t mean you necessarily going to win. If you don’t believe that, just ask Spence Abraham.”
Harris and his supporters, meanwhile, continue handing out the brooms, still holding out hope there may yet be a turnaround. But the experience so far has been dismaying. It could be argued that the baggage Harris carried into this race was the naïve expectation that the democratic process works for those who enter a race without pockets full of special interest cash.
“When I first decided to run,” he explains, “I said I will give my plan, my mission, my credentials to the people of this city, and then let them decide. But most people haven’t seen what I have to offer.”Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]