Detroit’s Race Without Race
Practical issues about governance and municipal services trump race in the Motor City’s mayoral race.

Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan


Detroit — Detroit looks likely to elect its first white mayor in four decades, as Mike Duggan leads his opponent, Benny Napoleon, nearly two to one, according to the most recent poll figures. The weird thing is that, in a racially polarized city, race hasn’t been much of an issue in the general election.

Race has shaped and destroyed Detroit’s culture. Racism is destructive in part because it undermines trust, a critical underpinning of civil society. And it remains a painful factor in Detroit, a fractured city where residents place extraordinary significance on whether the events of 1943 and 1967 are better described as “race riots” or “race uprisings.” Today, for all of America’s progress on race, Detroit remains a segregated city: More than 80 percent of its residents are black, and mistrust abounds on both sides of the city limits.

It’s in that context that Duggan has emerged as an unlikely front-runner. And whether or not he wins, his successes could signal an important change for Detroit. In 2008, Detroiters swore to me that no black man would ever find his way into the Oval Office. Obama’s victory caught the Motor City by surprise, not only because of his blackness but because of the cultural shift it signified.

Like Obama, Duggan is running on a platform of hope and change. Given that Detroit became the largest city in the United States to file for bankruptcy, and given its estimated $18 billion in current debt, that message is a welcome shift for many voters.

I attended one of Duggan’s campaign events recently, an after-work get-together at Gibson’s Lounge, a west-side bar with a grim exterior. Inside, it was surprisingly cozy, a space with wood paneling, a mural of several cars parked outside of a mansion, and fried chicken and spaghetti on the buffet table. Duggan wore khaki pants, a blazer, and a blue shirt unbuttoned at the collar, no tie in sight, chatting with prospective voters and posing for the occasional photo. Most of those who turned out were older, but a few youngsters trickled in toward the end.

After working the room, Duggan slides into a black vinyl booth to take a few of my questions. I ask him how he’s managed to transcend race in a city known for being divided, and he seems annoyed at the question.

“I’ve been to 221 people’s living rooms and basements and backyards, and more recently, the house parties have become church halls and coffee shops, and I’m just sitting down talking to people,” Duggan says, glancing around the room. “And when you sit in someone’s living room, your differences tend to melt away, and what you have in common comes to the front. I think the way things are going, I see people as people, and the people of Detroit are seeing me as a Detroiter. If you look at the polling data, race is not a significant factor at all.”

That explanation seems lacking to me: Politics are, fundamentally, about issues, and feelings of kinship often just don’t cut it. And it’s not as if Duggan has a winningly charismatic personality; on the contrary, he sometimes comes off as abrupt or disinterested. Then again, perhaps he’s getting points just for showing up in voters’ living rooms; around Detroit, the word is that since Duggan trumped his next contender by more than 20,000 votes in the August mayoral primary, general-election opponent Benny Napoleon has been strangely absent on the campaign trail.

But my guess is that Detroiters are drawn to Duggan foremost on the merits: He’s got a reputation for competence and a history of reversing fortunes. When Duggan took the helm at the Detroit Medical Center in 2004, it “had lost $500 million over the previous six years and was headed toward bankruptcy,” the Free Press noted in its endorsement of him. “But by the time Duggan stepped down last year, the health system was reporting $2 billion in annual revenue. In fact, the system became profitable within five months of his arrival.” Likewise, during his tenure as deputy executive of Wayne County, he managed to end a 17-year run of budget deficits. Compare that record to Napoleon’s: The Wayne County sheriff has presided over a $30 million deficit in his department. (And, for good measure, disregard for the moment that both candidates are essentially establishment men with reputations, deserved or not, for less-than-scrupulous political dealings.)


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