Does Detroit have a progressive future?

A reform-minded challenger failed to beat out Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in the August primaries -- but progressive advocates aren't feeling defeated.

does detroit have a progressive future

Not much changed in the primary election last week at the county level — Democratic incumbents for Wayne County Prosecutor, Treasurer and Sheriff handily beat their opponents and unofficially secured new four-year terms. (Only Treasurer Eric Sabree faces a Republican, Anthony Wozniak of Livonia, in November’s general election.)

Sheriff Benny Napoleon won in a landslide, and despite criticisms of Sabree’s handling of tax foreclosures, neither of his two opponents picked up much momentum. For Prosecutor Kym Worthy, with 16 years in office and her first significant challenger, it was a slightly different story.

Victoria Burton-Harris, a defense attorney with the ACLU of Michigan and McCaskey Law, ran against Worthy to her left as one of the key figures in a national criminal justice reform movement targeting local prosecutors. She had no previous experience in politics. Worthy beat Burton-Harris by more than 68,000 votes, receiving 63% of votes overall, according to the unofficial results from the Wayne County Clerk. 

But Burton-Harris’ supporters see the result as a win given that she was virtually unknown before April, said Branden Snyder, executive director of the progressive group Detroit Action.

“I think that it is a milestone that a neophyte first-time candidate did so well against a 16-year incumbent who is considered a rock star in the Michigan Democratic Party and has a national profile,” Snyder told Detour. “She was able to offer a really competitive race.”

We’ve paid particularly close attention to Detroit voters’ opinions on the prosecutor race, as anti-police brutality protesters pushed criminal justice reform into the daily conversation and Burton-Harris gained notoriety for efforts like defending a wrongly accused man in a case that involved facial recognition technology. Worthy has elicited strong support from establishment groups, notable leaders in the Democratic party and influential community members in Detroit, but a coalition of abolitionist and progressive groups backed her challenger. 

We wanted to take a closer look at Detroit voters’ picks for prosecutor (and Wayne County has not yet released countywide precinct-level data, nor responded to a request for info) — so we mapped the results for the city. Click on your precinct to see the vote count and overall voter turnout. 

In Detroit, Burton-Harris received 40% of the vote. Burton-Harris won precincts in areas of Detroit bordering Hamtramck and Highland Park, in Midtown, Downtown and parts of Southwest.

Wayne County Prosecutor Race Results by Precinct

Percentage Vote for Burton-Harris by Precinct

Maps created using election data from the City of Detroit’s website and precinct geographic data supplied by the City of Detroit’s Department of Innovation and Technology.

Pundits had suggested that Burton-Harris might gain traction in Detroit but lose in the more conservative suburbs; in fact, she did better in the Wayne County suburbs as a whole than she did in the city.

Progressive prosecutor challengers prevailed elsewhere in Metro Detroit last week, with former Circuit Court Judge Karen McDonald beating incumbent Jessica Cooper in Oakland County and Eli Savit winning against two other Democrats in Washtenaw County. 

Snyder noted that Burton-Harris appeared to be winning until absentee ballots were counted, which swung the race heavily in Worthy’s favor. He concluded that in future races progressives need to get the word out sooner to reach voters who make decisions early; those can tend to be older voters who are also frequent and reliable voters.

So is there a future for progressive leadership in Detroit and in Wayne County government?

“The fight for progress is far from over,” Arisha Hatch, Executive Director of Color of Change, a progressive PAC, told Detour in an email. “Victoria Burton-Harris was the only candidate [for Wayne County Prosecutor] committed to ending cash bail, addressing unfair disparities and restoring trust in our criminal justice system. Under Kym Worthy’s leadership, Black people, despite making up nearly 40% of the county’s population, make up for more than 70% of those detained in Wayne County jail on any given day.”

Snyder also sees cause for optimism for local progressives based on Burton-Harris’ performance. 

“It shows that Detroit voters and Wayne County voters in particular are interested in change,” said Snyder. “This summer, the George Floyd death really gave people pause to think about [how] maybe there is a need to think about how we do policing, how we prosecute, how we jail. Victoria’s campaign was able to get people a vehicle to do that.”

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak