DETROIT — As Detroit celebrates its 300th birthday, the city needs a leader who can tackle a raft of complex and serious issues, ranging from the future of casino gambling to school-bus service. But of all the burning questions surrounding the current mayor's race, one of the most difficult may be where to find a stage big enough to seat everyone for debates.
With the Sept. 11 primary fast approaching, no fewer than 21 potential chief executives are traveling around town in search of votes. That's good news for the podium-rental business, but a bit confusing for voters, who must pick two candidates to square off in November. Many here don't even know how many people are on the ballot.
The size of the field, however, is in inverse proportion to the candidates' political stature. There are front-runners in the crowd - among the favorites are Gil Hill, a city councilor best known for his role as Eddie Murphy's boss in the "Beverly Hills Cop" films. There is Kwame Kilpatrick, a state legislator best known for being the son of a US congresswoman. And there is the Rev. Nicholas Hood, a congregational minister and City Council member.
But nowhere in the crowd is there a heavyweight of the likes of outgoing Mayor Dennis Archer, who is a national presence.
"A lot of people were surprised Dennis didn't run. The word on the street was that he was in," says Robin Boyle, an urban-affairs professor at Wayne State University here. "It caught people here unprepared. And a lot of people jumped in thinking, 'Hey, I have a chance.' Secondly, there just weren't a lot of big names interested."
Running the nation's 10th largest city carries some prestige, but it has more than a few downsides, too. Detroit's sprawling size and feuding, populist politics make it difficult to tame. Streets and neighborhoods that look "revitalized" sit around the corner from empty lots and dilapidated buildings. As the US economy cools and Detroit's engine - the auto industry - slows, running the city isn't likely to get any easier.
A recent Youth Forum, where 11 candidates sat shoulder-to-shoulder, offered voters little reassurance. The sheer number of candidates prevented meaningful exchange. After two-minute opening statements, each was allowed one minute to answer questions from a panel of local students. One candidate took the time limit so seriously, he literally stopped mid-sentence if time was called.
Meanwhile, few of the would-be mayors had good words for a city that has seen improvements in the past eight years. "Detroit is in a crisis state," said one candidate. "We need to do something about the crisis that we're in and the crisis that's in front of us," said another.
All the tough talk was not without reason. Despite the city's improvements, this race is shaping up to be a battle of who can be the most unlike Mayor Archer.
Councilman Hill - who arrived at the forum in a giant recreational vehicle and is the favorite - is staking his claim as an anti-Archerist by boasting his service as president of the City Council, which is constantly at war with Archer. Though he has mellowed over time, Hill maintains his movie-star reputation for tough talk, which served him in his rise through the city-council ranks.
Congressman Kilpatrick, who sported neither a tie nor a jacket at the forum, has taken a more nuanced approach. He subtly mentions Archer's achievements, including new outside investments in the city, but he also stresses that he is not just the candidate of business. Race is a strong motivator for voters in this city, which is more than 75 percent black, and Kilpatrick's fliers have included pictures of Malcolm X, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. - something Archer wouldn't have done.
Still, Archer's fingerprints are all over this city's downtown, particularly on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's long-troubled main spoke. There, new stadiums and corporate headquarters are sprouting, and empty buildings in the area are beginning to spawn loft apartments. During his tenure, three temporary casinos also opened downtown, generating about $80 million in annual tax revenues.
Moreover, Archer's work as president of both the National Conference of Democratic Mayors and the National League of Cities raised his and the city's profile.
But the voters who gave Archer more than 80 percent of the vote in his last election seem to have grown tired of him, wanting more focus on simpler things like the bus system, garbage collection, and schools.
"Archer did as much as he possibly could," Professor Boyle says. "But there are only so many things you can do with Detroit's other constraints. There is only so much money in this city. Plus, he did have an image problem."
Eating lunch in the food court at the Renaissance Center, a five-tower complex that now houses the world headquarters of General Motors, Sam Woodruff says he appreciates what Archer has done, but he's ready for change. "He brought a lot down here, and I don't fault him on that. But he wasn't a people person. And there are other things. He promised to fix the bus system and ride on it in his Sunday suit to make sure it was clean, but it's in worse shape than ever."
Sitting nearby, Damiso Jackson has a harsher assessment. "If I was giving him a grade, I'd give him a C-minus. It's the basic services. I called about a streetlight blown out on my street, and they forward me to five different people, and, soon, I'm back at the person I started with."
Mr. Jackson and Mr. Woodruff say they haven't paid much attention to the campaign so far. The number of candidates makes it difficult to follow, but both say they are interested in Kilpatrick.
At the moment, polls show Hill is out front in the race, although he's not very far ahead of Kilpatrick, who has the endorsement of both The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press and is gaining ground. The real question is what will happen to voters backing the 19 people who don't make the run-off.
Sitting in Grand Circus Park, in the heart of the downtown development, Christina Krause sketches the buildings being gutted as she talks about the mayor's race. She, too, is leaning toward Kilpatrick because the candidate she really supports, city Auditor General Joe Harris, has gotten lost in the crowd and probably has no chance. "It's time for a change again," she says. "Archer got a lot started, but there's still plenty to do."