Detroit Set for 1st White Mayor Since ’74 as Politics Shift
Sean Davis said his friends called him a sell-out when he volunteered for Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan in February. After all, Davis is a black man from a city that’s 83 percent black, supporting a white candidate who until last year lived in the suburbs.
Davis didn’t listen. He said Duggan, who led Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon almost 2-1 in a poll last month, offers the best hope to change the trajectory of a bankrupt city where police don’t come, street lights don’t shine and neighborhoods are cut through by swaths of vacant homes and lots.
“I really wanted someone that was not part of the old regime,” Davis, 43, a former nightclub owner, said in an interview at Duggan’s campaign headquarters near downtown. “We definitely need a change.”
Duggan’s lead before the Nov. 5 election shows how smash-mouth racial politics may be giving way as voters look for a leader to assume power after the city emerges from a record $18 billion U.S. municipal bankruptcy and state control.
The default by the shattered auto-manufacturing capital has rattled municipal-bond investors’ confidence in the sanctity of a local government’s unlimited full faith and credit pledge, which backstops about $900 billion of its debt. A more pragmatic politics may restore the fortunes of not just the city but the state, where localities have had to postpone borrowing or pay a penalty to finance infrastructure projects.
Detroit has had a black mayor since 1974, when Coleman Young took office. Even as the city fell apart, it stood as a beacon of black political power. For many suburbanites, it became a place to be visited only for sports events and special occasions.
The city is being run for now by Kevyn Orr, appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder as a viceroy empowered to make all significant decisions. His term has no limit, though the City Council, which opposed state control, can end it in September with a two-thirds vote.
“The person who’s in charge is the emergency financial manager,” said Dennis Archer, a former mayor and Michigan Supreme Court justice. “The new mayor is going to be in office, and the question is, what kind of working relationship will he have with the emergency financial manager?”
Duggan, 55, a former hospital executive and prosecutor, won more than half the vote as a write-in candidate in the Aug. 6 primary after he was kicked off the ballot in a residency dispute. A poll last month by the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV showed him leading Napoleon, 58, whom he outpolled by more than 20,000 votes in the primary. Duggan raised and spent almost $1.7 million through Aug. 26, compared with $645,000 for Napoleon, according to reports filed by the candidates.
The odds seemingly would have been against Duggan to succeed Mayor Dave Bing, a former professional basketball star who decided not to seek a second term, said Bill Ballenger, associate editor of “Inside Michigan Politics,” a newsletter in Lansing, the capital. Though Duggan was born in Detroit, he has lived in Livonia until moving to run in the overwhelmingly black city.
“You would think that would be the ultimate kiss of death, but miracle of miracles, we find ourselves in a situation where Duggan, I think right now, is still considered an overwhelming favorite to win pretty easily,” Ballenger said by phone.
Duggan said yesterday he was able to get past racial divisions by making a concerted effort to meet with people at house parties and other gatherings.
“When you sit down and talk to people face to face, your differences tend to melt away and what you have in common tends to bind you,” Duggan said in a telephone interview.
If Napoleon, a black candidate, had Duggan’s resume, the situation might have been different, said Joe T. Darden, a professor of urban geography at Michigan State University in East Lansing who has studied Detroit race relations.
“I don’t think it’s just that they want a white mayor,” Darden said in a telephone interview. “I just think they want a change.”
Detroit has a history of raw racial and ethnic politics. In the 1920s, Henry Ford, founder of the auto manufacturer that bears his name, published a newspaper called the Dearborn Independent that trafficked in anti-Semitic propaganda.
As blacks migrated north to find work in his plants and those of General Motors Co. (GM), Studebaker and Packard, among others, the city’s politics were defined by racial tension. Riots in 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs. Detroit’s population has fallen by more than half since the 1950s, to 700,000 from 1.8 million, and it has almost 150,000 vacant parcels.
Recent history features the sentencing this month of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to 28 years in prison for racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, bribery and tax evasion. That’s the image of Detroit held by many residents outside the city, whose flight has created a generations-long divide with suburbanites who are whiter, richer and more Republican.
Napoleon, who is supported by labor unions and church leaders, said he’s gaining momentum and that the election will be decided by voters who will trust a lifelong resident who knows the city firsthand.
“It’s not about race; it’s about residency,” Napoleon said in an interview at his campaign headquarters across the street from Duggan’s office. “I’m not focusing on the fact that Mike is white; I’m focusing on the fact that he ain’t right.”
Duggan touts his experience as the chief executive who rescued the Detroit Medical Center from near-bankruptcy, and as a top Wayne County official who revived a regional bus system. He has a plan to improve neighborhoods, including by offering incentives for residents who live in sparsely populated areas and want to move into abandoned homes in more stable areas.
Detroit’s mayor should be judged by whether the population of the city is increasing, Duggan said. That starts with improving basic services because “then it becomes a whole lot easier to convince people to start to come back,” Duggan said on an Oct. 22 radio broadcast.
Napoleon said he has the better background as sheriff and as a former Detroit police chief. He has proposed an initiative that includes assigning an officer to each of the city’s 139 square miles (360 square kilometers).
“While he was sleeping in Livonia, I put on a bulletproof vest, a .40 caliber Glock and patrolled this city,” Napoleon said during an Oct. 20 televised debate.
Duggan’s business experience won him the endorsement of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said Sandy Baruah, its president and chief executive.
“I would much rather have someone who has slept in Livonia but can get things done than someone who’s from Detroit but may not know exactly how to execute the dramatic turnaround that is needed here,” Baruah said by phone.
Detroit’s top employers, rather than auto manufacturers, are now the Detroit Medical Center, the city and the Henry Ford Health System, according to the chamber.
Financial managers such as Jim Schwartz, head of municipal research at BlackRock Inc., which oversees about $108 billion of municipal debt, aren’t paying much attention to the mayor’s race because they are dealing with Orr.
“I’d like to see the mayor have some power and have somebody come on board that’s actually going to take on their obligations, but clearly Orr is running the city, so it’s just a figurehead in our view,” Schwartz said in a New York interview.
The candidates have taken differing positions on the emergency manager, who can realign services, sell assets and cancel union contracts.
Napoleon has said he opposes the law that establishes the position because it takes away the democratic rights of residents -- and because almost half of Michigan’s black population now lives under the rule of state overseers. He has called Orr’s appointment “illegal” and “illegitimate.”
Duggan said that while he disagrees with Snyder’s appointment of an emergency manager, he would work with Orr. Duggan hopes to function as chief operating officer and install his cabinet to run the city while Orr works on the finances. The goal is to persuade Snyder that an overseer is no longer needed, he said.
“The question is who can move the emergency manager out most quickly, and I think I have the financial credentials and the turnaround history to make the best case,” Duggan said.
Even with Orr in charge, Detroit has never more badly needed a leader with creativity, vision and willingness to take risks, said Maggie DeSantis, president of the nonprofit Warren/Conner Development Coalition on the city’s east side.
“From Day One, a new mayor has to lead, has to set the tone, has to convince the governor that the emergency manager can get out of Dodge soon,” DeSantis said. “It’s never been more important.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Detroit at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steve Merelman at