Voters in Detroit — a city at the heart of the civil rights movement and a stronghold of black political influence — have elected their first white mayor since the 1970s.
Mike Duggan, a former hospital executive, was projected late Tuesday evening to defeat Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon with 61 percent of precincts reporting and a substantial lead in absentee voting.
A Duggan victory in a city with a population that is more than 80 percent black shows that Detroit voters looked beyond the color of their mayor's skin. Namely, at the city's recent bankruptcy.
"We don't care if he's white, black, or plaid," said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which represents the local business community that threw its support behind Mr. Duggan. "We are a diverse country that elected and re-elected an African-American president. I think the people of Detroit are just looking for the right candidate who can fix this city. The majority of voters are over the issue of what color his skin is. The fact that Mike happens to be Caucasian doesn't bother people."
The situation in Detroit is so dire that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder brought in emergency manager Kevyn Orr earlier this year to deal with the city's fiscal problems, which eventually led to the bankruptcy. Mr. Duggan could face a power struggle with Mr. Orr for control of the city, with Mr. Duggan hoping to control the city's operations and leave Mr. Orr to focus on Motor City's financial side.
Decades of mismanagement and corruption came to a head in July, when Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Some estimates claim it is between $18 billion and $20 billion in debt. The landscape is strewn with about 80,000 abandoned homes and buildings, and nearly half of the city streetlights are broken. Crime also is rampant due to a lack of funds for an adequate police force with some residents reporting it takes hours for emergency services.
Detroit voters seemed to believe that Mr. Duggan, a former hospital executive who has a history of turning around struggling companies, is the best candidate to get the city back on its feet.
Mr. Duggan took over as chief executive of the Detroit Medical Center in 2004, when the hospital was on the brink of bankruptcy. He immediately stepped in, averted that path and turned the company into the city's biggest employer.
It's this background that made voters confident Mr. Duggan is the man for the job.
"Our biggest problem in Detroit isn't about what color our leaders are, but a crisis of competency among them," The Detroit Free Press wrote in an editorial backing Mr. Duggan. "The bar's set so low for Detroit right now that we're grateful to current Mayor Dave Bing chiefly because, well, he didn't ... steal our money."
Roman Gribbs, in office from 1970 to 1974, was the last white Detroit mayor. In 1974, Coleman Young began a 20-year run as Detroit's first black, and longest-serving, mayor. Young was followed by the shorter terms of Dennis Archer, the scandal-ridden Kwame Kilpatrick, Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and Bing, a former Detroit Pistons basketball star who chose not to run for again.
Kilpatrick was sentenced last month to 28 years in prison after being convicted on felony charges of fraud and racketeering, stemming from his time in office.
But the issue of skin color wasn't completely absence from the campaign.
While Mr. Duggan tried to downplay the race card, his black opponent, Mr. Napoleon, ran a series of "must have forgot" ads that warned black Detroiters not to go "backward" on civil rights.
The U.S. Justice Department sent federal employees to Detroit on Tuesday to monitor the election.
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