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Election results show Michiganders are more tolerant on social issues

Jack Lessenberry

So, is there any overall meaning to yesterday’s elections, at least in Michigan? Or is it a case, as former House Speaker Tip O‘Neill said, that “all politics are local?” That it would be hard to read any deeper meaning into results from Detroit, or Saugatuck?

Usually, I’ve found that Tip was right, especially in what are called “off-off year elections;” those held in odd-numbered years. But this year, I think you can find common themes and moods.

Voters wanted change, but want to hedge their bets. They aren’t very fond of government these days; many proposals for new money were voted down, with two exceptions: Schools and roads.

In most places, people seem to have supported school millages, especially for renewals. In Huntington Woods, the tiny city where I live, voters approved raising taxes to fix the local streets by almost 10-to-1, and similar measures passed elsewhere. That might stiffen the spines of legislators who have been afraid to approve the new money Governor Snyder says is needed to prevent Michigan’s roads from destroying our cars.

The biggest result of the night came in Detroit, where Mike Duggan, a can-do political operative, was elected mayor with 55 percent of the vote. He will be the city‘s first white mayor in 40 years, and never tried to hide the fact that he moved into Detroit just to run for mayor.

His victory is a clear indication Detroiters are hungry for someone, anyone, who can change their lives for the better. But Duggan’s victory was closer than expected. His margin over Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon was only about half what it was in the August primary, when Duggan was a write-in candidate.

Business leaders and state government wanted Duggan to win, in large part because he indicated he was willing to work with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr until power returns to Detroit’s elected leaders, probably next fall.

But the forces behind Duggan can’t be nearly as happy with the new City Council. The top vote-getter was incumbent Brenda Jones, who has mostly opposed any attempts at reform.

Southwest Detroit elected the city’s first-ever Latina to council, and one white candidate, Gabe Leland, won by the narrowest of margins. But two other reform candidates lost, and it is not clear Mayor Duggan will have an easy time putting together a coalition to ratify the difficult decisions and budgets he will eventually ask them to approve.

Whoever Detroit council selects as its new president will provide a powerful clue. Voters sent a message in communities as diverse as Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale; they don’t want people arrested for small amounts of marijuana.

And in Royal Oak, 54 percent of the population approved a city ordinance outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s notable when you consider that 12 years ago, a similar ordinance was voted down by more than 2-to-1. 

If there is a theme in yesterday’s voting, it seems to be this: Voters are more tolerant on social issues. They want things that are broken fixed, but if possible, without radical change. Now, it’s up to those who they elected to get it done.  I don’t envy them. 

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

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