Detroit Mayor 'Asked To Save City While Holding Kryptonite'

Election results in Virginia, New York, Detroit, and New Jersey are getting national attention. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, and Jerome Vaughn of Detroit's NPR member station WDET, to talk about Tuesday's winners and losers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, in my Can I Just Tell You essay, I'll tell you what occurred to me when I found out that the mayor of Toronto has now admitted that he used crack cocaine. That's later, but first, we want to talk about results from governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia and mayoral contests in Detroit and New York. We especially want to know what these races say about political trends around the country. So we have called upon, once again, Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, thanks for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Jerome Vaughn. He's the news director at member station WDET in Detroit. Jerome, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

JEROME VAUGHN: Always glad to talk to you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Ron, let's start and just ask if there are any overall trends that you want to flag for us. Looking at these, you know, very different races around the country, any overall themes that emerged?

ELVING: It's hard to draw anything that's overall from the whole country because, as you say, they're quite different races - New York City versus southern Alabama, the state of Virginia, which really includes more or less the same broad sweep of contrast as you would see between New York City and South Alabama.

And if you look at all these different races together, the things you're struck by, I think, are the overwhelming differences between regions, the overwhelming differences in terms of income levels and how people vote according to income levels, and also, I think, the importance of old things we have known forever - issues matter. The races go up and down as different issues come to the fore. Obamacare, the government shutdown - we saw a lot of fluctuation in Virginia over those issues. And in the end, candidates matter. People whose personality comes across successfully in the campaign, that really matters in the end. We saw it with Chris Christie. We saw it with Bill de Blasio in New York.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's just talk about Virginia for one minute, and then we'll turn to Jerome and talk about Detroit. In Virginia, the longtime Democratic fundraiser, former Democratic National Committee chair, Terry McAuliffe, won the governor's race. This was his second try. It was a very tough, bitter, you know, fight. A lot of people were saying that this race is a referendum on the Tea Party, which backed the Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, very strongly. He was a very conservative figure - maybe a referendum on Obamacare, even Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016, since McAuliffe is very close to the Clintons. Is any of that true in your opinion?

ELVING: I think referendum might be the wrong word. I know we like to use that word, and sometimes there is a referendum in a particular vote. But it's also a test of strength. And that may be just a slight difference in terminology. But a test of strength and a referendum are not exactly the same thing.

This was clearly a test of strength for the Tea Party, and I don't think that it entirely failed that test. It did not achieve its goal of electing Ken Cuccinelli, who's a long-time champion of the Tea Party and its issues. He's a social conservative, very much a aggressive conservative on social issues, but also somebody the Tea Party has related to on fiscal issues. So he was a test of the Tea Party's strength.

If they could push him over in a state as diverse and purple as Virginia - that twice voted for Barack Obama - it would've been a tremendous victory for them. It didn't look like it was in the cards. Looking at the polls over last several weeks, Cuccinelli was well behind. But in the end, last night, he came a lot closer than anyone might have expected. So I think the Tea Party will take a certain amount of encouragement from that, even in its moment of disappointment.

MARTIN: Let me just ask Ron one more question before I turn to Jerome - sorry about that, Jerome - and what about Chris Christie in New Jersey? I mean, he was looking for a big number, did not have very strong, you know, opposition - Republican, of course, kind of big personality, big figure. Let's hear just a little bit from his victory speech, and then I want to hear what you have to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: We stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you.

MARTIN: So, Ron, who is he talking to?

ELVING: He's talking to a national audience of people that he hopes will elect him president in 2016. Now I don't mean to dis the people of New Jersey for a moment because Chris Christie obviously is enormously grateful to the people who voted for him in the state of New Jersey. But what he's doing here is he's emphasizing the idea of pragmatic and practical politics that solves problems and not ideological conservatism, or for that matter, ideological anything.

Sure, Chris Christie can be called a (inaudible) conservative, but now he's trying to transcend that. He's trying to heal the divisions in the Republican Party and reach beyond it to Independents and to a lot of Democrats. He got a lot of Democratic votes on Tuesday, and he wants to do that again as a presidential candidate in 2016. And a lot of polling shows he might be able to do that in 2016 if he can get the nomination of the Republican Party. That's the tricky part for him. And so that's the source of that language about solving problems, being practical and not being ideological.

MARTIN: We're talking about election results with NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Now I want to hear from Jerome Vaughn, news director of WDET in Detroit, which had a big election, also. And Mike Duggan won the race for mayor in Detroit. And this made kind of national headlines in part because Detroit is so much in the news, but, Jerome, also because he will be Detroit's first white mayor in 40 years. And the city is still overwhelmingly African-American. What were the elements of his victory?

VAUGHN: Well, almost like Ron was saying about Chris Christie, this idea of pragmatic and practical. He's seen as a problem solver. Mike Duggan has worked as CEO of the Detroit Medical Center. He helped bring that from the edge of bankruptcy.

Before that, he was deputy executive for the county that Detroit is in, and before that, he worked in the county prosecutor's office. And in each of those jobs, he was really seen as someone who found a way to get things done. And that's what Detroiters really want is someone who's going to get things done right now. The city is $18 billion in debt. There's a trial going on right now to determine whether the city's eligible for bankruptcy. We just had a former mayor sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for racketeering and extortion. Detroiters want to see things move forward, and they picked the person they think is going to do that.

MARTIN: We were following the coverage for the station and there was a sense that there were some - there was some tension even in some households around this decision. Is this - you know, I saw in one of the stories that quoted a woman saying that her husband was telling her that she was, you know - she should be voting for the African-American candidate, and there was one. And she just felt that that was kind of - that time is over. Do you think that there's a broader sense of that, that maybe it's time to kind of put some of the racial politics aside? Or is it that the current circumstances are seen as so extreme that his business background was more important than anything else?

VAUGHN: I think, honestly, it's a mix of the two. I think primarily, you know, Detroiters saw, you know, we want to get the best person for the job. You know, while this is the first white mayor in 40 years, Detroiters have voted for white candidates over time. Maryann Mahaffey was a longtime president of the city council. She was white - Sheila Cockrel, a white councilmember. And in a district, just last night, a white city council member was elected.

So it's not as if Detroiters always vote for African-Americans. You know, it's an important part of the process. And there was a lot of coded language during the course of the campaign about Mike Duggan being an outsider, about him sleeping in Livonia while Benny Napoleon was guarding the streets of Detroit. All of this sort of coded language that tried to bring race into it, but I think at the end of the day, again, Detroiters said, Mike Duggan, he's going to get the job done. We're going to vote for him.

MARTIN: So, Ron, there was a changing of the guard in another big American city. Bill de Blasio will be the first Democratic mayor elected in New York in two decades. And he had - there was some interesting kind of racial dynamics around his case. This was an open seat because Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor who served for three terms, wasn't running again, wasn't on the ballot. But, you know, he comes from - he has a - his wife is African-American. His children are bi-racial. There was some talk about whether it was appropriate for him to use his children in those political ads, even though, you know, lots of politicians do. What do you think is the message of Bill de Blasio's election?

ELVING: I think the message of Bill de Blasio's election is that New York City, like a lot of other cities, is eager to move beyond a strict definition of racial politics and look for something that's a little bit more hybridized and blended. And the de Blasio family is a perfect metaphor for that. They perfectly convey this notion that the city would like its politics to be about something other than race, that they would like it to be about something other than money.

And Bill de Blasio is not a wealthy man. He's been the public advocate there in New York. And of course he follows on a three-term mayor who spent extraordinary, astronomical amounts of money being elected mayor, particularly the third time when he defeated an African-American rival at the end of that particular campaign. And New York has been a city of progressive politics at times in its history, and in recent years, as you mentioned - though they've had 20 years in a row of nominally Republican at least mayors - although some people might argue that about Rudy Giuliani, and certainly Mike Bloomberg had started life as a Democrat and later switched back to being an Independent. So it's a little deceiving to say they've had Republican mayors, given the exact personalities of those people. But Bill de Blasio is a real progressive Democrat who wants to talk about income inequality in Manhattan and in all five boroughs. And he wants to talk about the city as it is, at its roots and at its base.

MARTIN: Jerome, final thought from you, if we can. What is Mike Duggan's first priority when he takes on this job?

VAUGHN: Well, that's really a big one. I was thinking about, you know, many places the headline was, Detroit elects first white mayor. Probably a better headline might be, Detroit's new mayor asked to save city while holding kryptonite. And really what that is about is there's an emergency manager who controls Detroit's finances, who is negotiating the bankruptcy right now. And that's the person who has a lot of the power right now.

So Mike Duggan's going to be mayor. He's going to have to negotiate with the emergency manager to figure out how much power he has and what he can and cannot do in the interim. As far as what the folks want, they want crime taking care of. They want city services to improve. That's his big agenda.

MARTIN: Jerome Vaughn is news director at member station WDET in Detroit. He joined us from there. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. He joined us from his home office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

VAUGHN: Good to be with you.

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