Former CEO of Detroit Medical Center Mike Duggan has defeated opponent Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County Sheriff, becoming Detroit’s next mayor at one of the toughest times in the city’s history.
On Tuesday, November 5, Duggan became the first white mayor to be elected in the 82-percent African-American city in forty years.
But race was not the main story Tuesday, nor was it on many electors’ minds. Voters were more concerned about candidates’ ability to tackle Detroit’s numerous economic challenges and who was most likely to regain control of their city after its financial reins were taken over by Governor-Snyder-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr in March. Under Orr’s leadership, Detroit became the largest American city to ever file for federal bankruptcy.
“I am hopeful things are going to get better,” Chrysler factory worker Shanada Jackson said Tuesday night as the results were becoming clear. “Duggan has all that experience saving the hospital. He is better equipped to lead the city than the other candidate [Napoleon].”
During the campaign, Duggan presented himself as a “turnaround specialist,” whose experience included successfully overhauling the SMART regional bus system and making the Detroit Medical Center a profitable enterprise after years of financial losses.
His campaign gained support from big businesses, but also focused on connecting to individual neighborhoods and communities. Irrelevant of him being white, supporters saw him as relatable, as well as competent.
“I trust him to do the job. I think it’s time for the city to recover. It’s time for a new start,” Drew Pompa, a Detroit bartender whose father worked in the Detroit police force, said.
Speaking to supporters Tuesday night, Benny Napoleon emphasized his service to the city, which has spanned almost four decades. But accentuating how much of a familiar figure he is within city politics was part of Napoleon’s downfall. Locals are weary of politicians who have risen through traditional ranks, a process they see as corrupt.
Last month, former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in jail after being found guilty on multiple counts of fraud. The sentencing marked yet another painful date in Detroit’s recent history.
Unlike his opponent, Duggan skillfully managed to be relatable to the grassroots while presenting himself as enough of an outsider that voters could believe he could bring about positive change.
Bryan Barnhill, Duggan’s campaign manager, is the embodiment of this fine balance. Barnhill, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate and a native Detroiter, chose to return to his city after graduating college. And although Barnhill is tired of speaking about race, it is worth noting that Barnhill is black.
Barnhill spoke to the heart of the issue after results came through last night.
“What makes tonight historic has very little to do with race. What makes this moment a historic one has everything to do with a story […] about how a community – our community – responded during one of the most challenging times in the history of our city.”
If Duggan was elected on the merits of being able to get the city back on track, he may have a while to wait before he can make any significant decisions.
Governor Rick Snyder gave bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr financial control of the city for 18 months last March, making the mayor’s role, in this initial phase at least, a symbolic one only. Outgoing mayor David Bing has repeatedly lamented his lack of inclusion in decision-making over the city’s fate in the months following the takeover.
Orr’s financial rule is not a popular one in Detroit. The former Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who was imported to the Democrat-voting city by a Republican governor, wants to cut city workers’ pensions and has put the local DIA’s art collection under threat of auction.
Duggan’s first challenge will be to gain a place at the table, rather than to regain full control.
“Duggan is a master negotiator,” David DeVries, a Detroit cheese shop owner whose family has owned the business for over a century, said. “He’s the best chance we have at getting control back from Orr and his people.”