Detroit poised to elect its first white mayor since 1974

DETROIT — The last time there was a white mayor of Detroit, the Vietnam War was just ending and the nation was getting used to a Supreme Court decision called Roe vs. Wade.

But now this city, which is in the midst of a trial to determine whether it is eligible for bankruptcy protection, is set to elect its first white mayor since 1974, Mike Duggan, and by an overwhelming margin. Recent polls show Duggan up by a nearly 2-1 margin over his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, in a city that is 82% African American.

Duggan’s lead is seen as a signal that the residents of long-struggling Detroit are ready for a change in leadership — someone who hasn’t served the city in politics before. After all, still fresh in voters’ minds is the case of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who three weeks ago was sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption.

The winds of change, however, may also be fueled by the nation’s willingness to elect a black president.


Minister Malik Shabazz, president of the Marcus Garvey Movement/New Black Panther Nation in Detroit, is one of Duggan’s most vocal supporters. Shabazz admits that having President Obama in the White House changes things.

“In the last two national elections, African Americans have asked the nation to choose the best person for the job and not get caught up in color. And twice, Barack Obama has won,” he said. “Now, in Detroit, in 2013, the best man running is a white brother, and that’s OK.”

The political establishment in Detroit did not make Duggan’s road to Tuesday’s ballot an easy one. The onetime hospital executive, who moved to Detroit from the affluent, mostly white suburb of Livonia, was kicked off the Aug. 6 primary ballot after opponents raised a court challenge questioning whether he met residency requirements.

A frustrated Duggan withdrew from the race — until supporters persuaded him to run as a write-in candidate. He won more than 50% of the vote that way, despite a crowded ballot and despite his opponents’ bid to confuse voters by mounting the candidacy of a barber named Mike Dugeon.

“He became this folk hero. It just kind of took on a life of its own,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a popular political newsletter.

Duggan’s background appeals to voters in a city that is desperately trying to turn itself around, where street lights don’t work and police can take hours to respond to violent crimes. He was once the deputy executive of Wayne County, where he helped overhaul the bus system, served as a county prosecutor and is widely credited with helping to turn around Detroit Medical Center with its eight hospitals.

He’s received endorsements from unions including Service Employees International Union Healthcare Michigan and from African American religious leaders including the Rev. Jim Holley of the city’s Historic Little Rock Baptist Church.

“Mike Duggan has a reputation, deserved or not, as a Mr. Fix-it, a turnaround artist,” Ballenger said.


Duggan’s opponent, Sheriff Napoleon, has impressive credentials as well. His campaign literature shows a younger Napoleon, wearing a bulletproof vest, carrying a small child away from a home where the boy’s family had been held hostage. He has played up his Detroit roots and long law enforcement career, at one debate saying that he “put on a bulletproof vest, a .40-caliber Glock and patrolled this city” as Duggan slept in Livonia.

Napoleon, 61, has snagged endorsements from major law enforcement groups such as the Detroit Police Officers Assn. and from unions including the city’s largest, Michigan’s American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 25.

The new mayor, whoever he is, will not have too much responsibility when he first takes office. Detroit is being run by Kevyn Orr, an emergency manager appointed by the state, who has taken the reins from current Mayor Dave Bing. The law that allowed Orr to be appointed sets up a potential exit route for him in a year.

Many Detroiters seem to be focusing on who will best be able to run the city when Orr leaves. Few want to replicate what happened in Flint, Mich., which had an emergency manager, got rid of him and then needed another one when its finances again tanked.


Some voters see Napoleon as part of the old political establishment that wasn’t able to help the city.

“Duggan represents change; Napoleon does not,” said Joe Darden, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied race relations in Detroit. “Napoleon essentially represents a continuation of the status quo.”

Phil Pugh, 73, has lived in Detroit his whole life; like many other African Americans here, his family moved to Detroit from the South in the early part of the 20th century. He says he has seen many friends leave as they seek a safer place to raise families or after their grown children persuade them to move away.

Safety is so much on Pugh’s mind that he has three dogs, saying it’s the only way he can live in Detroit. He also says he has called the city many times to get help with keeping his neighborhood safe and free of blight. Every time, he says, he was rebuffed.


On a recent morning walk through his neighborhood near the Boston Edison section of the city, where boarded-up houses dot the block, Pugh talked about how difficult it had become to live in the city.

“I think it’s time for a change, and that change is Duggan,” he said.