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Bankruptcy looms over Detroit primary

Write-in Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan votes in the primary at the 12th Precinct in Detroit, Mich. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Duggan is one of fourteen candidates in the mayoral primary.
David Coates ,AP Photo/Detroit News

Candidates in Detroit's mayoral primary are racing to lead the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy, while yielding complete control of its finances to a state-appointed emergency manager.

As polls opened Tuesday, voter turnout appeared light; turnout is expected to reach around 17 percent -- the same percentage of registered voters who cast a ballot in the last mayoral primary. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is likely to advance to the general election, but there's the possibility of a run-off between Napoleon and write-in candidate Mike Duggan.

The city's financial troubles, voters said, are a key factor in deciding who to vote for at the polls Tuesday.

"I think it's going to be difficult for anyone," said Malcolm Parrish, 23, a recent graduate of Morehouse College, who voted for Duggan, the former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center.

For Virgie Rollins, who voted for Napoleon, the next mayor must be able to deal with the bankruptcy.

"Sheriff Napoleon can work with the federal government," she said. "He knows how to work with people there."

However, the biggest name and most prominent issue in the struggling city are Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager, and his Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Some of the favorites for mayor have come out against the filing, and say they will work with Orr only if they have to.

"My pitch to him is, `You're here to straighten out the finances. You have no municipal government experience,'" Napoleon said. "The emergency manager puts the budget together. The mayor should be able to set the priorities."

Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, and accountant Tom Barrow contend Orr was illegally appointed as emergency manager.

"In light of the bankruptcy filing, I don't believe he retains his power under state law," Barrow said of Orr. "Bankruptcy laws kick in. Those laws are explicit that the debtor is the municipality and its elected officials."

They are among 14 candidates on the ballot and two write-ins seeking to succeed Mayor Dave Bing who is not seeking re-election. The top two vote-getters will face off in the November general election, with the winner moving into City Hall with a title, $158,000 salary and - as things stand now - little else. None of the candidates has name recognition outside the city like Bing, a former NBA great.

When he announced in May he wouldn't pursue another term, Bing charged that the state government was not truly willing to help the city.

Uncertainty and failure have been standard operating procedure for years in once-mighty Detroit. Last month, it became the largest city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy under the weight of massive debt brought on by crushing population decline and a history of political corruption and mismanagement.

Seeking to bring stability and turn the city around, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr, a national bankruptcy attorney, in March under a Michigan law that gives emergency managers nearly unlimited power.

On July 18, Orr made the Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in federal court. He said Detroit is insolvent, unable to pay off debt that his restructuring team says could reach $20 billion. He has stopped paying on $2.5 billion in bonds, using that money to pump up struggling and underfunded city services. He also asked city creditors and Detroit's two pension funds to accept pennies on the dollar in money owed them.

Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit councilwoman and founder of a government relations and advocacy firm, said the bankruptcy proceedings are sure to hover over the next mayor's first term.

"There's no roadmap of where or how this would go," she said.

Another candidate, barber Mike Dugeon, is seeking the job as well. He has never run for elected office and said he filed after being approached by a local television reporter over his name similarity with Duggan.

Asked about the difficulties he faces not having his name on the ballot, Duggan said he doesn't think "people will have any trouble spelling my name" and that his campaign is "going to be fine."

That could make tabulating the write-ins onerous and time-consuming. Following the primary, county canvassers will go over the spellings on each write-in ballot cast to determine who gets the votes.