In Detroit, a Race to Run the City — Eventually

As the bankrupt city moves close to electing its first white mayor since 1974, race is proving to be less of a concern than competence

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In any other era, the election on Tuesday of Detroit’s new mayor would be the biggest story in town. And, at any time in the past 40 years, that new mayor would have been African American.

But the fate of the city, which filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history this summer, no longer rests in the mayor’s hands. The two men vying for the job have tried to distinguish themselves by their plans for getting out from under the state-appointed emergency manager, who has taken over much of the power that previously fell to elected officials.

Michael E. Duggan, the former chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center, is leading Wayne County sheriff Benny Napoleon by a 2-to-1 margin in recent polls. If the projections hold, Duggan would be the city’s first white mayor since 1974. The prospect has rankled some in Detroit, which is nearly 85% African American.

Yet the prevailing attitude seems to be that the city is in such dire straits that the color of its mayor doesn’t matter. Four of five respondents in a recent Detroit Free Press poll were African American and said overwhelmingly that race was not a factor in their vote.

“Our biggest problem in Detroit isn’t about what color our leaders are, but a crisis of competency among them,” wrote Stephen Henderson, editorial-page editor of the Free Press, who is African American. “It’s foolish to pretend that race doesn’t matter. But it’s equally ridiculous to use it as a crass litmus test to achieve simplistic outcomes.”

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The outcome in Detroit, however, will be far from simple. Tuesday’s vote is just one of two major decisions expected this month that will affect the future of the Motor City.

Later in November, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes is expected to formally decide whether the city was eligible to seek Chapter 9 protection. Many legal experts consider his ruling a foregone conclusion, but there have been instances in which judges decided municipalities should have fixed their problems on their own.

Detroit’s 48 employee unions and eight holders of city bonds have protested the bankruptcy filing, saying that the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, did not adequately bargain with them on cutbacks. The biggest issue involves the reductions in retiree pensions that Orr is widely expected to seek, once he has permission to do so in bankruptcy.

Rhodes has given the unions until Nov. 16 — four months after Orr initially filed the bankruptcy petition — to submit their definitions of “good-faith bargaining” and a ruling is expected shortly after.

The bankruptcy outcome clearly will define the next steps for the city, whose outgoing mayor, former Detroit Piston Dave Bing, has complained bitterly over being sidelined by Orr.

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No one has talked about whether there is a Plan B for running Detroit, should the judge decide that the bankruptcy filing was flawed.

Orr has said the city — which owes about $18 billion in current and future liabilities — could go into default, creating an even bigger web of problems. Bankruptcy, at least, has provided some certainty after years of downward spiral.

Detroit’s image, long defined by scenes of shuttered auto plants and vacant lots, lately has acquired a patina of Rust Belt chic as civic-minded developers have sought profits while rebuilding neighborhoods. Among these examples of the resurgent Detroit are Midtown, where Duggan’s former medical center is the city’s major employer, and Corktown, a hipster enclave on Michigan Avenue just west of downtown.

But Michigan Avenue, which extends from downtown beyond the city limits with Dearborn, illustrates the challenges that Detroit faces. On a recent evening, the street bustled around Corktown, originally an Irish neighborhood, with old pubs and new bars and restaurants.

Once past Corktown, however, Michigan Avenue becomes a mirror of the city. Some spots show development, such as brightly lit drug stores and adult entertainment clubs, while long stretches still have vacant buildings like the soaring Michigan Central Station, a symbol of the city’s decline. Some side streets lead to bright, well-manicured homes, while others are pitch-black — plagued by broken streetlights that are out in nearly half the city.

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Duggan has emphasized getting the lights back on, as well as dealing with Detroit’s stubborn crime problem. He has vowed to lower police-response time, now at about an hour, even for an emergency call. Napoleon, a former city police officer, has said he would reduce the root causes of crime to cut down on the need for emergency calls.

Just as Napoleon is trailing Duggan by a 2-to-1 margin, he is also dwarfed when it comes to fundraising. Duggan’s campaign has taken in $2.55 million while his super PAC, Turnaround Detroit, has raised $1.46 million. Napoleon, meanwhile, has raised $869,000 while his super PAC, Detroit Forward, raised about $303,000.

Duggan supporters include the elite of Detroit’s white business community, including automotive-and-racing executive Roger Penske; Peter Karmanos, the philanthropist and founder of Compuware; and members of the Ford and Taubman families. He also has the backing of the Detroit regional Chamber of Commerce and DTE, the area’s major utility.

Both candidates have said they want decisions about the city again left to the mayor and the city council.

“I don’t know if we can get Kevyn Orr out before September” when the emergency manager’s term expires, Duggan said in a televised debate last week, but he thinks returning the city to the mayor’s jurisdiction will be a first step in improving its image. Napoleon, meanwhile, has maintained that Orr was appointed illegally.

“I remember the Detroit we had,” Duggan said at the debate. “And if you will trust me with your vote, I will rebuild the kind of Detroit that this city deserves.”