Everybody Loves Coleman

Can the son of Detroit’s legendary first black mayor pull off an upset against Mike Duggan? He’s going to have fun trying.

Coleman A. Young II had downed a virgin strawberry daiquiri and decamped to the bathroom when a server began calling for him. “Where’s the mayor at?” she yelled. “I gotta get a picture with him!”

It was a glorious Friday in early June, and Young was due for a break in a frenetic campaign day. His team had stopped for lunch at Starter’s Bar and Grill in northwest Detroit, a cavernous place with dark wood furnishing, although food wasn’t really the point. While a manager distributed fliers, Young made a beeline for any potential voters in the mostly empty restaurant, introducing himself, glad-handing, and posing for selfies.

He approached a booth, where a woman wearing track pants asked how he would help ordinary Detroiters, and Young launched into an explanation of a lawsuit he intends to file against the state over car insurance redlining. His enthusiasm seemed to quickly earn the woman’s trust, and soon she began relaying a lengthy, very personal ordeal.

“I was accused of a crime I didn’t commit,” she said. “I can’t get my life back.”

Young was imploring her to call his state Senate office when the table’s food arrived and another woman at the table began knocking the butt of her hand against the bottom of a ketchup bottle. Instinctively, Young swiveled to an adjacent table, snatching another bottle, never missing a beat in the conversation, which was only interrupted by a familiar request. “Can I take a picture with you?”

Young is a natural on the campaign trail, and at 34, already a seasoned politician: After winning a state House race at 23, he’s now in his second term as a state senator. When he entered Detroit’s mayoral race in February, he immediately became — because of his political experience and, to an undeniably huge extent, his uncanny name recognition — the foremost challenger to Mike Duggan.

The incumbent, presiding over Detroit during an era of explosive business growth and development, is considered the favorite, but Young was offering something entirely different: a populist door-to-door campaign centered on helping the neighborhoods that he says are left out of Detroit’s celebrated Duggan-era revitalization.

“Everybody loves Coleman and Coleman loves the people,” Young says matter-of-factly. “It’s a blessing man.”

Young’s father, Coleman Alexander Young, a fiery former union organizer, was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973 and served 20 years, the longest tenure in city history. As the city’s first African-American mayor, he was a cultural icon who served as an unapologetic, if controversial, champion for black Detroiters.

Young II was born nearly a decade into his father’s tenure. He was 6 when the unmarried mayor publicly acknowledged him after long-swirling rumors and a paternity test.

By then, Young II was living in Southern California under the name Joel Loving, an alias his mother gave him to protect him from the vitriol surrounding his father.

At age 12, Young II says, a phone call from his father changed the course of his life. “He basically asked me to carry on the name and the legacy.”

Young has a portly build and handsome, dimpled face that often contorts into exaggerated expressions. He has a habit of repeating upbeat phrases (“It’s all good! It’s a blessing!”) and reflexively flattering strangers.

Even for a politician courting votes, he is remarkably accommodating: On the way out of Starter’s, he was stopped by a huge man who introduced himself as the comedian Black Coffee. After expressing his support, Black Coffee mentioned he had a show that night, then quickly conscripted Young for an impromptu promotional video.

“Let’s start it now,” he said, passing his phone to a member of Young’s team. “Uh, this is Coleman Young, here at Starter’s!” the comedian began. “He may come out tonight to see Black Coffee! You take black coffee?”

Young stood close, the two big men sharing air in the crowded foyer. “I love Black Coffee!” he replied, with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. “Anybody and everybody is going to be here, so you need to come see my man Black Coffee!” He repeated the plug before ending with a plea for votes.

Later that afternoon, Young was cruising along Dexter Avenue on the city’s west side, sitting in the passenger seat of a black Chevy Impala sporting a picture of his face on the door. The houses were a typical Detroit mix of blighted and well-kept, the residents almost all black — precisely the kind of neighborhood that buoyed the elder Young’s support, and from where Young II needs a big showing to have a chance in November.

“Hello-ooo Mr. Young!” a woman yelled as the car rolled by.

The Impala parked in front of Whitlow’s Barber Lounge on Wildemere Street. Inside, a small crowd was already gathered; one man sat in a barber’s chair, his face and head covered in lather. Young greeted the group, then quickly walked to a portrait of his father hanging in the corner, giving a big thumbs-up for a camera.

The crowd turned out to be friendly but tough. After a question about car insurance pricing, Young assailed Duggan’s plan for not actually mandating rate reductions (“It’s like cereal with no milk!”) and reiterated his intention to sue the state over redlining.

He was finishing an impassioned monologue about a lack of opportunity for kids when a barber named Frank, standing in a back corner, directed the conversation into more complicated territory. “People who come through, they discuss,” he told Young. “They say, ‘Oh, on your flier you wrote Coleman A. Young.’ They’re asking, ‘Where is the Junior?’ They’re asking, ‘What name did you have before you became Coleman Young?’”

Soon after, Young and his entourage were walking through the streets, knocking on doors, waving into car windows, planting yard signs. As the heir to Detroit’s most famous political name — and one who bears a close physical resemblance to his father — Young is almost universally recognized. But as a candidate, he’s eager to highlight his own accomplishments.