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Commentary: Residency Requirements


Weeks ago, the Detroit mayoral race had come down to a  contest between Mike Duggan, former head of the Detroit Medical Center, and  Benny Napoleon, now the Wayne County Sheriff.

But  this was expected to be the most exciting and significant mayoral election in  forty years. Then, to everyone‘s shock, a Wayne County circuit judge ruled this  week that Duggan wasn‘t qualified because he failed to meet the residency  requirement.

Detroit law says candidates have to be a qualified voter  in the city for at least a year prior to the date they file to  run. Duggan, who lived in Livonia most of his adult life, moved to  Detroit and registered to vote on April 16 of last year. The filing deadline for  mayor was this May 14th, so he thought he was fine. However, he turned his  paperwork in early.

He filed to run on April 2nd. He could have waited  for another month, but just wanted to get it our of the way early.

But  Tom Barrow, a perennial candidate who has run and lost three times, sued, saying  Duggan filed before he was qualified. And on Tuesday, Wayne Circuit  Judge Lita Popke ruled Barrow was right, and that Mike Duggan’s name had to be  removed from the ballot. This is likely not the last word on  this. Duggan has vowed to appeal, and Barrow has asked the Michigan  Supreme Court to step in, bypassing the Court of Appeals to save time, since  primary and absentee ballots need to be printed soon. How this will all play  out, nobody knows.

Race is never far from the surface in Detroit.  But  this cannot be construed as a case of a black judge ruling to keep a  white candidate from running for mayor. Judge Popke is a white woman and a  former insurance litigator appointed to the bench by Governor John Engler.  

What this does do, however, is raise the curtain on our crazy  patchwork quilt of residency and eligibility requirements. Last  November, Gary Peters was elected to Congress from Michigan’s 14th District.  What is interesting about that is that he didn’t live there. Legally,  congressmen don’t have to even pretend to live among the people they represent.  But the mayor of Detroit does.

Now there is no doubt that the only  reason Duggan moved to Detroit last year was so that he could run for mayor this  year. But he is hardly the first politician to move for political  reasons. Laws and regulations are necessary things, but in this case,  you might think it would make sense to let the voters decide whether or not  Duggan is Detroiter enough to be mayor.

Especially since he appears to  be being penalized for getting his work done early. But in any case, it would  seem to me we need a clearer and more consistent system of residency  standards. Though I’m not planning on holding my breath till that  happens.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.