Detroit mayor's race: Racial politics out, focus on fixing the city in (+video)

The front-runner, Mike Duggan, took the Detroit Medical Center from near-insolvency and the threat of mass layoffs to reinvestment and profitability. If elected, he would be the city’s first white mayor in four decades.

By , Staff writer

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    Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan (R) chats with Detroit resident David Miller as he makes a campaign stop in the neighborhood he lived in as a child in Detroit, Michigan November 2, 2013.
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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.

Recommended: Briefing Detroit's bankruptcy woes: five key things to know

“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.”

Mr. Holley, who is endorsing Duggan, says financial solvency is such an urgent need in Detroit that it overrides all other factors.

“There’s nothing wrong with Mr. Napoleon, but we don’t need a sheriff; we need a businessman,” he says. “It has nothing to do with anyone being worse, but Napoleon is not the right guy for this job at this particular time.”

The shift away from racial politics in Detroit “is a reflection of change in the city,” says Robin Boyle, chair of the urban studies and planning department at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“The hostility that has been toward white candidates has increasingly moved to the fringe,” Professor Boyle says. “There is clearly a deep concern from the neighborhoods that whoever is going to be running this city post-bankruptcy has got to have a clear sense of how the business of a city works.”

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.

Stepping into office if and when the city lapses into a federal bankruptcy restructuring could be ideal, Boyle says: It means that the legacy issues of past administrations – the looming debt, pushback from labor unions – would be largely dealt with outside the mayor’s office.

“By the time he assumes power, he’ll be running a city that’s had a cleaner balance than any Detroit mayor had since the Second World War,” Boyle says. “That does not mean there won’t be fundamental problems, but it does mean that many of the red-ink problems will be less than they were. There’s an opportunity here.”

The city’s most powerful unions – the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – are endorsing Napoleon, although Duggan has received his share of union endorsements from groups like the Michigan chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

Michael Mulholland, a sewage plant operator for the city’s water department and a member of AFSCME Local 207, says he is against both candidates because neither will have any power once he assumes office.

“The mayor is only as powerful as the banks and Republicans in Lansing [the state capital] will allow him to be,” he says. “In 10 years, they hope it will be a different city and a city with a lot less unionized population.”

A public employee for nearly 30 years, Mr. Mulholland is like many in Detroit: He worries that the potential changes to the pension he was promised will mean he won’t get to retire and instead will end up working into old age as “a Wal-Mart greeter.”

He doesn’t trust Napoleon because of his push for public-private projects, which he says are unfriendly to unions. And Duggan won’t get his vote because, when he was at the DMC, he was on record as working against an organizing drive by the Michigan Nurses Association.

“For me, the problem is that the lesser of two evils is presented to us. I’m so sick of it. I really think the labor movement has to think of itself as a movement rather than part of the system,” he says. “Because the system has rejected them.”

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