Detroit’s Race Without Race

by Jillian Kay Melchior
Practical issues about governance and municipal services trump race in the Motor City’s mayoral race.

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.)

Vince Keenan, executive director of Publius, a nonpartisan voter-education organization, has worked in Michigan for 17 years and says that Detroiters are “looking for leadership that can get the job done, and for the first time in a long time, I think, race is a secondary consideration.” In his estimation, “Detroiters just want the city to work, and the style and structure of government is less important than the fact that the police come when you call them, or that the lights are on at night, snow gets plowed, garbage gets picked up, buildings get knocked down, grass gets mowed — that is a higher priority.”

My campaign-trail reporting supports Keenan’s theory. When Napoleon spoke at a senior center, he focused on crime prevention, his specialty — but also talked up how Detroit has revitalized its downtown at the expense of his neighborhoods, a criticism that subtly played on class and potentially race. But when it came time for Napoleon to accept questions, most of the residents just wanted to know how he’d make the buses run on time.

Deborah Hogans, an older woman in a wheelchair, recounted to me how she’d tried to take the bus to the hospital the day before. “I was supposed to be getting off to go to [the hospital], and the bus driver took me all the way to Eight Mile, and then brought me back [home],” she said. “That was the worst experience, and I was scared, and [another rider] was going to jump on the bus driver. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna be in the middle of a beat-down on a bus driver,’ and I didn’t even get to where I wanted to go.”

That such issues are trumping color in Detroit is a positive sign. And the openness with which many here are supporting a white candidate may well be a sign of growing black empowerment, says Bankole Thompson, managing editor of the Michigan Chronicle. And after the primary election ended, “the candidates have tried to avoid [mentioning race] because it’s almost a powder keg. You know, it’s explosive,” Thompson adds.

Furthermore, this election is already undermining the notion that Detroiters are uninterested in their politics. Duggan’s opponents played a dirty game throughout the primary season, but the electorate stuck with him as he overcame obstacles that were almost unprecedented. He’s one of only a handful of politicians in American history who have ever waged such a successful write-in campaign, and he couldn’t have done it without highly committed voters supporting him.

The drama began when Duggan, who had previously lived in Livonia, a middle-class white suburb, moved to the city to run but accidentally filed his election petitions a bit too early; following the letter of the law but not the spirit, the court booted him off the primary ballot, a move that enraged many voters. Duggan then staged an elaborate write-in campaign, even as his primary opponents painted him as a carpetbagger.

Dirty tricks followed. As Duggan tried to get voters to remember his name to write in, a contender named Mike Dugeon entered the race, a thirtysomething barber without any political experience. Many voters suspected Dugeon had been found and put up to running by one of Duggan’s real primary rivals.

Nevertheless, Duggan won at the primary, securing 48,700 votes to Benny Napoleon’s 28,300. That, too, created controversy, when Wayne County election officials tried to disqualify thousands of write-in primary votes on a counting technicality, an effort that was highly questionable from the get-go and later overruled.

“That kind of electioneering really doesn’t play well,” Keenan says, “especially in the context of that there are people who want it both ways: They want to talk about the loss of democracy in relation to the emergency manager, but then those very same people would turn on a dime and turn out 24,000 legally cast votes just because they didn’t line up with their interests. It was an unbelievable attempt . . . to disenfranchise voters.”

And voters didn’t tolerate it, which belies the stereotype that Detroiters are politically apathetic. True, only one in five Detroit voters cast ballots in the primary — a turnout about on par with that of other elections. But those who did vote showed themselves capable of following a complex, confusing process. And despite a lot of strange shenanigans, Detroit voters got the candidate they wanted on the general-election ballot.

Perhaps Detroiters have come to appreciate their political rights more because some think they’re in jeopardy. Detroit is under the governance of an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who was appointed by the governor. Orr’s opponents deem the office of emergency manager wholly undemocratic. Napoleon is a staunch opponent of the setup himself, and at his campaign event he boasted to prospective voters that, presumably unlike Duggan, “I do not have relations with the emergency manager. . . . He’s a king, and I don’t think we believe in kings in America.”

Duggan may still lose — Detroit is a city known for last-minute political upsets. But if it does ends up choosing its next mayor solely on his merits, Detroit will bring itself closer to a post-racial culture. And that will be a truly historical marker.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.