For the first time in 40 years, voters in Detroit have elected a white mayor, a notable development in a city that is nearly 85 percent African-American.
But the election of Mike Duggan as chief executive of a city that has elected African-American mayors since 1973 says as much about Detroit as it does about the new mayor himself. It is a stark indication that Detroit, with its deep fiscal woes, its bankruptcy and its historic corruption in city hall, has sunk to a place of sufficient despair that the city is committed to trying something new.
The newness has nothing to do with race, but rather with the perception that Duggan, a former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center, was the non-politician that the voters seemed to crave. Voters increasingly saw Duggan as someone who had a track record of restoring institutions to fiscal health. The fact that Duggan is white was of little to no concern to voters who simply wanted to see their city crawl out of its deep fiscal trauma.
It is a trauma made even more vivid by the recent sentence of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to 28 years in prison for a wide assortment of corruption and racketeering offenses. It is a trauma fueled by a city with $18 billion in long-term debt. It is a trauma deepened by the appointment by the state’s Republican governor of an unelected emergency financial manager, who took the historic and chilling step of placing Detroit into bankruptcy.
Whether Duggan can effectively address the current muddle in Detroit remains to be seen. It is not precisely clear where the power of the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, stops and where the mayor’s begins. Duggan has insisted that Orr’s role is unnecessary and that Detroit is quite capable of handling its own affairs. It is an argument rejected by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder but one that will undoubtedly pick up steam in the months to come.
More than anything, the election of Mike Duggan demonstrated again that African-Americans are not blind about their political views with knee-jerk allegiance to any candidate with Black skin. Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County sheriff, who lost to Duggan, is an experienced law enforcement official with a rich history in Detroit. But he was seen by many African-American Detroiters as a largely political creation with a loyalty to whose favors needed repayment.
As one voter explained in an interview, “I felt it was time to do something different, to make a change.” Duggan’s victory is a result of the hopes of voters whose disappointment in the city’s government and officials has become chronic. Now it’s time to see if Duggan can capitalize on the extraordinary good will that propelled him to the mayor’s office. It will not be easy.
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