Posted on November 4, 2013

Detroit Mayor’s Race: Racial Politics Out, Focus on Fixing the City In

Mark Guarino, Yahoo! News, November 4, 2013

On Tuesday, Detroit voters may give the city what it hasn’t had in 40 years: a white mayor.

In years past, that might have been contentious, considering Detroit has been a black majority city for decades. However, under a looming bankruptcy, which would be America’s largest for a municipality, voters here are evidently less concerned about where city hall leadership is coming from, and more interested in what the next mayor can accomplish while in office.

The to-do list, according to voters here, is long, including addressing basic needs such as broken streetlights, a breakdown in emergency response times, a crumbling infrastructure, and crime.

“We don’t need a campaign about race, we don’t need one that talks about ethnicity: We don’t need to talk about anything other than who is qualified to really get this city out of debt so we can move forward,” says the Rev. Jim Holley of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit.

The decision by the current mayor, Dave Bing, to not run for a second full term made the field wide open, with as many 15 candidates vying for the position. This week, the main contenders are two: Mike Duggan, former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center (DMC); and Benny Napoleon, Wayne County sheriff and former chief of police in Detroit.

A poll released last week by the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV shows Mr. Duggan, who is white, will probably win by a landslide, as likely voters say they prefer him to 2 to 1 over Mr. Napoleon, who is black. That split has only widened since the last poll in September.

The success that Duggan had in turning around the DMC has been widely publicized. He spent eight years at the coalition of eight hospitals, ushering it from near-insolvency and the threat of mass layoffs to reinvestment and profitability. Much of the success benefited its workforce, which is the largest in Detroit and predominantly black.

“When [Duggan] showed up, there was talk of shutting down the hospitals, and he turned it around. Whether he’s white, black, green, purple, he took an institution and brought it back from the dead,” says Ed Sidlow, a political scientist at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. “Bankruptcies come out of boardrooms, and what Duggan did with the DMC is awfully impressive, and he made a lot friends when he did it.”


Both candidates say they plan to present pushback to Kevyn Orr, the emergency manager assigned to the city under Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R). Mr. Orr is in the midst of a federal trial to win Chapter 9 bankruptcy protections for the city, which he says is bogged down in $18 billion in debt. If granted those protections, Orr will submit a restructuring plan that may include recommendations from the next mayor, although those would not be binding.

Under federal law, Orr is the ultimate authority controlling the city budget, which means the next mayor will largely be powerless, at least for the time being.

Napoleon has said that Orr’s appointment is “illegal” because it negates the democratic rights of city residents. Duggan has been more nuanced, saying that he would strive to convince Governor Snyder that Orr’s appointment is unnecessary. If that is unsuccessful, Duggan wants to serve as chief operating officer to run the city while Orr drafts a financial plan.