Mayor Mike Duggan: A Fearless Political Operative
If you had any doubt about the political clout — or ruthlessness — of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, consider what happened in a special primary election last week.
Pamela Sossi said she’s always admired Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. She was an intern in the office of his father, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan.
“I have been a huge fan and a supporter of the mayor for over a decade. I was so happy when he won as a write-in candidate,” in the Detroit mayoral primary in 2013. “He’s one of the reasons why I decided to do what I did, two years ago. He was a bit of an inspiration for me, frankly, to run for a state house seat. The mayor took on the machine and won. I was trying to do the same thing.”
But earlier this month, that same mayor brutally engineered her political defeat in a race she was set to win. Sossi lost a Democratic primary for the legislature in a tough East Side district that straddles Detroit and some mostly white, blue collar suburbs, a place where Republicans are rare and the Democratic primary the real election. She had solid endorsements from both business and labor and both Detroit newspapers – but lost to a convicted felon.
The winner was Tenisha Yancey, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor who was formerly unknown politically, but a likely loyal soldier of the Duggan machine. When still in her teens, she was convicted of felony retail fraud, stalking, and several other misdemeanor offenses. Today, Yancey admits to “making very poor decisions,” but claims to have turned her life around. Sossi evidently made one fatal political error: She didn’t support Duggan’s drive to change the law to permit a special low-rate “D-Insurance,” for drivers in Detroit, where car insurance rates are the highest in the nation.
Yancey, a 41-year-old former assistant Wayne County prosecutor, beat Sossi, 2,215 votes to 2,017, with a third of the vote going to a host of other candidates. Duggan endorsed and campaigned– hard — for the previously unknown winner.
“There’s no way that Ms. Yancey could have built the name recognition to win the race in such a short period of time had the mayor not gotten so heavily involved,” Sossi said. “He made robo-calls non-stop for her, actively campaigned for her in public, and negatively campaigned against me,” the defeated candidate said. To be sure, Yancey had other support, especially from the United Auto Workers’ union, Wayne Country Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Sheriff Benny Napoleon.
But there’s little doubt the mayor made the difference.
Asked why, Duggan said, “I am very impressed with the way Tenisha Yancey turned her life around and became an accomplished prosecutor, and she is committed to supporting my initiative to reduce car insurance rates for Detroiters, whereas Pam Sossi was in the pocket of the medical providers and unscrupulous attorneys who are ripping off our residents.”
Sossi says that’s unfair. “I’m committed to lowering auto rates for Wayne County and Detroit residents,” she just doesn’t agree with the way the mayor wants to do it. She denied being in the pocket of anyone, or of getting campaign funds from the trial lawyers. She agrees change is needed. She just doesn’t like the mayor’s approach. “The courts should address this issue, not the legislature; the legislature should regulate the activity of the insurance companies, not give (them) more power.”
This has been an especially brutal awakening for the 33-year-old attorney. For one thing, it is her second loss in a year, to two different convicted felons. “I didn’t want to do this for me, but for this area. For my neighborhood. This entire area needs help, and I wanted to get the legislature to pay attention to it.” Sossi felt she had to. She is the first member of her family ever to become a lawyer. She’s lived her whole life in the hardscrabble east side suburb of Harper Woods, which borders some even more desperately poor neighborhoods in Detroit.
Her father was a union electrician for Chrysler; “Holidays were hard because we couldn’t buy anything that wasn’t made in America.” Her mom had a small restaurant where Pam worked before going to the University of Michigan. Last year, she decided to run for the state legislature in the Democratic primary against an unsavory incumbent, Brian Banks, who had eight felony convictions and had been charged with sexual harassment by a male legislative aide. She pounded a lot of pavement, and spent about $20,000, most if it her own money. But he won, 3,293 to 2,618.
That didn’t greatly shock her; she was a newcomer, and it is always hard to beat an incumbent. Barely a month after being sworn in, Banks resigned, as part of a deal to avoid prison after being charged with four more felonies. That meant a special election – and Sossi thought it was her time. “This time I raised $40,000, and only had to spend about $5,000 myself,” but it wasn’t enough. She won overwhelmingly in the suburban portion of the district, but was swamped in Detroit, finishing fourth behind not only the winner, but two minor challengers.
Coleman Young II, who will face Mike Duggan in a runoff in November, strongly backed Sossi. When the results were in, Sossi said she “didn’t even want to leave my bedroom for a couple days.” But later in the week, she said she was still committed to public service in some way. “I’m a firm believer that you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”
My guess, however, is that she isn’t going to ask to join Mayor Duggan’s staff any time soon.
is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.