Diary of a longshot: Inside Coleman Young’s no-frills bid for Detroit mayor.

coleman young

State Senator Coleman A. Young II, D-Detroit, addresses supporters last month at his headquarters in northwest Detroit. (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)

The grilled chicken came on Styrofoam plates, while Detroit mayoral hopeful Coleman A. Young II worked the room and took photos with his supporters.

Decorations at Steve’s Soul Food Restaurant in downtown Detroit were limited to three silvery balloons in the shape of the letters “C,” “A” and “Y.” Later in the night, a ballroom dance contest was planned for the 80 attendees.

The cost of admission: A $20 donation to the campaign of Young, 34, a state senator who is in the final stretch of a long-shot bid for mayor against one-term incumbent Detroit Mike Duggan in the Nov. 7 election.

The next week, in contrast, a fundraiser for Duggan was scheduled at the Detroit Athletic Club. Tickets cost $100 to $1,000.

It’s been that sort of campaign for Young, the son of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman A. Young. The 10-year legislator may have a million-dollar name, but he’s run a shoestring campaign.

Since finishing 41 percentage points behind Duggan in the Aug. 8 nonpartisan primary, Young has raised little money. Instead, he relies on no- and low-cost events, such as talking to voters on public buses, attending events like high-school reunions and posting messages and videos on Facebook.

Local political consultants have written off Young, saying his campaign never gained traction after missing early, key endorsements. Experts say Young’s best hope is to use the campaign’s televised (and only) debate on Oct. 25, social media and his gift for speechifying to boost his reputation for a future run for another elected office.

Related: One promise Mike Duggan can’t keep?

But Detroit is a city that loves underdogs, one where Duggan won as a write-in candidate in 2013 to become the city’s first white mayor in 40 years. Young said his campaign gives voice to Detroit’s majority –  the poor and people of color.

“We’re about what’s going on in the neighborhoods, we’re about reaching out to the least of these, the people who’ve been forgotten, neglected, abandoned,” Young said during the fundraiser at Steve’s.

“The people who have no water, people who’ve been arrested for not having auto insurance … that’s who we’re going to get to go out and vote.”

‘The other guy don’t care’

Young said he expects his visibility to increase in the next few weeks and said he should be able to raise enough money to buy a television ad.

He won’t discuss campaign finances, but reports released Aug. 28 show he raised $33,750 compared to $1.8 million for Duggan.

“We’re doing this to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves!” Young told volunteers during an event last month at his campaign headquarters in northwest Detroit.

“We need you to raise money, we need you to go out there and knock these doors, ... because it’s too important, it’s too vital, what we out here running for. ‘Cause the other guy don’t care about none of this stuff.”

As he wrapped up, the crowd boomed with chants of “Cole-man Young! Cole-man Young! Cole-man Young!”

He spoke near a huge portrait of his father, who died in 1997 when his son was 14.

Young’s campaign was dealt an early setback when groups that sided with his father endorsed Duggan, including two dozen former mayoral aides; unions such as AFSCME and a group representing 100 of the city’s pastors.


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is debating Coleman Young once. Political consultants say the Oct. 25 event is Young’s best chance to try to close a massive gap.

Perhaps the biggest symbolic blow came when Duggan received the endorsement from the Black Slate, the political organization affiliated with the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a powerful church on the city’s west side. The Black Slate was founded in 1973 and helped elect Young to the mayor’s seat that year.

If Coleman Young II wants to gain on Duggan, he needs to hone his message that Detroit’s comeback is limited to downtown and Midtown rather than the neighborhoods, said Detroit political consultant Steve Hood.

“Now it’s about the social media, creating a buzz, text messaging, massive debate prep for a knock-out punch a week before the election,”  he said.

“He’s got to define Duggan, get under his skin.”

Hood said Young likely won’t win but could get as much as 40 percent of the vote. In the primary, Duggan received 68 percent of the vote to Young’s 27 percent.

‘The gift of gab’

Young’s best hope, Hood and others say, is to connect with voters who identify with the “two Detroits” narrative.

As Young sees it, investments in downtown and Midtown have diverted tax dollars from neighborhoods. It’s a new Detroit, Young says, where millions of tax dollars are used to build Little Caesars Arena for billionaire sports owners while water is disconnected at the homes of 83,000 poor people.

Related: Are there two Detroits? A new report says yes, but...

“He has the gift of gab. He is bringing voice to real issues of real people and residents’ concerns,” said Darci McConnell, president and CEO of McConnell Communications, Inc., a Detroit-based firm that often works on political campaigns but isn’t involved in this year’s mayoral race.

“The question is, is (Young)  going to be able to connect with enough voters so they can hear that message and will he be able to get them to go out and vote?”

Young is a passionate, often funny orator who speaks about racial and progressive issues such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That could be a powerful message in a city with a median income of about $26,000, said McConnell, who predicts Young won’t win.

But some of the senator’s speeches have been more successful than others.

This month, a video went viral online of Young speaking on the state Senate floor following the death of Damon Grimes, a 15-year-old Detroiter who crashed his ATV and died after being Tasered by a state trooper. The YouTube clip has attracted more than 3 million views.

In late August, though, Young was criticized by local media for appearing in a YouTube rap video for the song “We Be Winning.” The video includes a speech from Young claiming “white supremacy” in the Manoogian Mansion, the city’s mayoral residence.

A muted message

This is Young’s second mayoral campaign. When he was 26, he finished a distant fifth in the primary that eventually elected Dave Bing to office.

Young has served two terms in the state House and is approaching his last year of his final Senate term because of term limits. A Democrat in a Legislature controlled by Republicans, he’s established a reputation as a reliable –  if often losing –  vote for progressive causes.

His biggest legislative victory, according to the Detroit News, came in 2009 when he sponsored a law barring discrimination against pregnant women.

Related: Promises, meet reality: Measuring Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s first term.

Young was an opponent of the so-called grand bargain that cleared the way for Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy but led to benefit cuts for pensioners. He also opposed the 2016 reorganization of Detroit Public Schools that restored the city’s elected school board but established a Financial Review Commission to monitor the district’s finances.

Prior to winning a seat in the Legislature at the age of 23, Young worked as an aide to former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. Before that, he went by his birth name, Joel Loving, and lived in California where he grew up. Young’s Senate biography indicated he attended Azusa Pacific University in California and transferred to Wayne State University, where he plans to complete his undergraduate degree.

His 10-page campaign platform, “Plan for Detroit,” promises to improve customer service, inclusion and transparency in city services; lower auto insurance rates and help entrepreneurship and education. The plan also proposes adding elevated, driverless two-person pods for transit and reviving the idea of an Africa Town commercial district.

Because he has little money, Young must spread his message door-to-door through volunteers, Hood said.

“If he was able to do two poll mailings and one to females, if he was actually able to buy ad space on (the music application) Pandora targeting anybody who downloaded or wanted a hip-hop channel, this would be a different race,” Hood said.

Young probably would’ve had a better shot at winning this year’s city council race against incumbent District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, a race he was rumored to have considered, Hood said.

Mario Morrow, president and CEO of Mario Morrow and Associates, a public relations firm in Detroit, said Young hasn’t crafted a public conversation to eclipse his relative youth and the fact that he lacks a recognized reputation apart from being his father’s son.

“It was too early for him to run,” Morrow said. “The timing was off.”

‘You have to know your people’

Young’s supporters feed on the naysayers.

At campaign events, they hang on Young’s words, pumping fists in the air.

Some support him because they dislike Duggan, pointing to an ongoing federal grand jury investigation of his signature program, the demolition of 12,000 blighted homes. The probe is believed to focus on the cost of contracts and the process to award them.

Other supporters consider Young an ally for the city’s black and brown poor majority.

“Mike Duggan has a cloud of controversy around him,” said Kim Traus Ewing, a Young supporter. “I think the issues (Young) addresses are relevant to me.”

At a campaign event last month, Young said too many people are being left out in Detroit.

“We got too many people making life decisions, ‘Am I going to pay my auto insurance or am I going to have lights?’ … What if we had a mayor who said, ‘I’m not going to support anything until more people in my community got jobs?’” Young thundered.

The choir of supporters responded with “I know that’s right!” and “Yes!”

Lory Parks, an organizer with the local Fight for $15 effort to increase the minimum wage and volunteer with the Young campaign, contended that small campaigns can win.

She recalled in 2003 when JoAnn Watson beat Gil Hill for an open city council seat, she did so with a strong grassroots campaign.

“Coleman A. Young goes directly into the neighborhoods, I have yet to see Duggan go anywhere except the Avenue of Fashion where he feels comfortable,” she said.

“You have to know your people.”

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Kevin Grand
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 10:39am

Did anyone else find it ironic that when Sen. Young was protesting about "When can black people protest/speak out", he was personally speaking on the floor of the Michigan Senate at the time?

I don't have a dog in that race, but I'll offer this friendly suggestion to him: If he wants to generate significant numbers for his mayoral campaign, then I would highly recommend that his campaign schedule a protest in front of Detroit Police HQ (conveniently right next to a Michigan State Police Post), and invite the entire lineup of the Detroit Lions, along with term owner Martha Ford herself, to attend.

All that free publicity for all of those who (allegedly) believe in "the cause", should surely result in a significant bump in his numbers.

Eric Brown
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 2:31pm

You cannot run a campaign by simply touting the name of your dad as your calling card. Additionally, if you are someone that has resprsented the people and now you want to talk about what has not been done in the neighborhoods; the questions is, What have you done for the neighborhoods that you serve? His greatest accomplish is Lansing does not even address neighborhoods or improving the lives of his majority black constituents.

Duggan is far from perfect, but if these two are the choices from which to select; the choice should be easy for the citizens of Deteoit and Mike Duggan has earned a second term.

Kie James
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 9:00pm

Duggan can only get positive press from the far right-wing Republican George Will in the Washington in a piece that looks like a paid ad and compares him to another Republican Mayor LaGuardia. Maybe his story-tellers didn't know George Will is a right-wing Republican. Then they ran that same story in the Salt Lake, Utah newspaper... another right-wing Republican tome... Looks like Duggan is a right-wing Republican by association in a Blue city? Really....? From the Washington Post "I find it interesting that a "so-called" Democrat could only find support from a far-right conservative Republican. It is clear that he was always and continues to be a Republican that is in the Mayor's seat in Detroit. This is tantamount to a paid political ad and should me labeled that way. Duggan's staff of "story-tellers" are so uninformed, they probably didn't know that George Will is a very conservative Republican. But what even George Will's staff did not research was Duggan's 30 year record of corruption. He is currently being investigated by Special Investigator for TARP funds (SIGTARP) by FEDERAL GRAND JURY PROBE, because of bid-rigging and collusion that he admitted to on network TV. Detroit is now the poorest (48% poverty) and most violent city (FBI) in the US. Those statistics have occurred under his watch. Additionally, he lives in Livonia, (one of Michigan’s most racist cities) not Detroit his 30 year record of corruption begins with his work in the Office of the Wayne County Executive McNamara where there was an FBI investigation; to when he was administering Detroit Public Schools contracts for DPS school refurbishment in the mid-90’s and there was an FBI investigation of his management; to when he was Wayne County Prosecutor and tried to cover up the murder of Malice Green by attempting to coerce the County Medical Examiner to not report the death as a homicide, who refused, sued him and prevailed; to when he was CEO of the Detroit Medical Center and attempted to break the nurses’ union (the nurse won a $47 million suit against him), took $2 million from the sale of DMC to Vanguard and consolidated the sterilization of instruments that caused unsanitary instruments, deaths and another federal investigation; his work as Treasurer of the Educational Achievement Authority, where there was a federal investigation into his handling of the funds; now we have a FEDERAL GRAND JURY PROBE. Everywhere he's worked he had a failed lawsuit and feds." Comments.

Eric Brown
Thu, 10/12/2017 - 9:18am

All that while still not making the case as to why his opponent should be mayor. you speak of Detroit as if all the bad there just happened within the last 3-4 years when we all KNOW that is not the case. You speak of Duggan as if he is the cause of the high crime rate, poverty and every social I'll in Detroit. You failed to mention that EVERY one of his predecessors since 1977 looks like the majority of the residents in Detroit that did little to improve the literacy rate, poverty rate and crime rate.

It is okay to rail on the leadership based on how you feel about them, but be fair and point out the failures of all who have served the citizens of Detroit.

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 2:03pm

Have you seen any of George Will's articles lately about Donald Trump? Doesn't sound so right wing there. I am not a Detroiter, but it seems to me that Duggan has the City in his heart and is trying his hardest for the people. I don't see many negatives and I like that he's trying to get auto rates down. They are way too high for the average joe.