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Published: Wednesday, 11/6/2013

Detroit elects former outsider as mayor

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

DETROIT — Mike Duggan, a longtime political operative with a reputation for getting things done and fixing institutions, on Tuesday became the first white politician elected mayor of Detroit since 1969.

“Thank you Detroit! It has been an amazing year,” Mr. Duggan said in claiming victory. “Everything I have done has been to try and rebuild this city.”

Mr. Duggan, 55, defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, 58, a former Detroit police chief who was widely liked, but seemed unable to credibly discuss issues other than crime.

The campaign was highly unusual in many ways, including the decisive victory of a white candidate in a city where blacks are more than 80 percent of the voters. But the Detroit race drew national attention mostly for one major reason: While the new mayor and city council will take office in January, they will be essentially powerless.

Detroit, which has become the largest city in history to seek bankruptcy protection, had power taken over by the state in March.

Estimates are the city has more than $18 billion in debts and unfunded liabilities, including promised pensions city workers may not receive, depending on what U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes decides in the coming months.

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Maryland bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr to run the city. He is expected to remain in charge until at least October, if not longer. Mr. Duggan, an attorney, said he had opposed the idea of an emergency manager, but had said if elected he would work with Mr. Orr, and hoped for a speedy and smooth transition back to rule by the city’s elected leaders.

With virtually all the vote counted, Mr. Duggan had 55 percent, or 74,170 votes, to 45 percent, or 60,304, for Mr. Napoleon.

That was a closer result than indicated by polls, which showed Mr. Duggan ahead nearly two to one. But there were signs that Mr. Napoleon surged in the final days, when he benefited from union support, repeatedly reminded voters he had lived his whole life in the city, and implored them not to turn their Detroit over to “outsiders.”

The campaign itself had several stunning moments.

Mr. Duggan, a former deputy Wayne County Executive and elected county prosecutor, had lived for many years in suburban Livonia.

But he moved to Detroit last year, expressly to run for mayor. When he was ruled off the ballot on a technicality, he mounted a write-in campaign. Few experts thought he had a chance.

Mr. Napoleon, one of 14 candidates actually on the ballot, finished a distant second. Sheila Cockrel, who served on Detroit City Council for 16 years, said that Detroiters, the vast majority of whom are black, no longer are interested in voting on the basis of race.

“They want someone who they think can get the cops to come and the streetlights turned on,” Ms. Cockrel said.

Mr. Duggan may have won because he was seen as a man who can do that. Indeed, he took over the troubled Detroit Medical Center in 2004, when it was losing about $100 million a year, and made it profitable again. Eventually, it was sold to Vanguard Health Systems, a private firm.

He also was credited with pulling Wayne County out of chronic deficits in the late 1980s, when he was deputy county executive, and with leading a campaign to persuade voters outside Detroit to tax themselves to save SMART, the suburban bus system.

Mayor Dave Bing, who declined to run for re-election, estimates that unemployment is more than 40 percent, taking into account those who have given up looking for work.

● In another closely watched contest, 54 percent of the voters of suburban Royal Oak passed a human rights ordinance that bans discrimination based on “sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.“

The ordinance had been passed by the city commission in March, but irate social conservatives collected signatures to force a citywide vote on the issues. Twelve years ago, Royal Oak voters turned down a similar proposal by more than two to one.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.



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