The election of Mike Duggan as mayor of Detroit Tuesday is a remarkable event for reasons that go far beyond the widely heralded footnote that Duggan will be the overwhelmingly black city’s first white mayor in 40 years.
On paper, Duggan, who defeated Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, 55 percent to 45 percent, looks good. He combines experience in politics and management like no other mayor in memory.
A lawyer, he has served as the deputy Wayne County executive, Wayne County prosecutor and CEO of the suburban bus system and the Detroit Medical Center. He has a reputation as a tough and shrewd customer who never hesitates to go for the political jugular.
“The guy’s a genius,” City Councilman Ken Cockrel said Tuesday night on Fox 2.
Yet this was an election like no other in Detroit history. With the state-appointed emergency manager in place, the mayor possesses only the power that Kevyn Orr gives him. Detroit has a strong-mayor form of government, but Duggan's position will be more akin to that of a high schooler being elected student council president. He still has to answer to the principal.
Orr gradually stripped Mayor Dave Bing -- who had frequently stumbled during his first three years in office -- of virtually all of his duties and left Bing whining about his plight.
That mayoral conundrum became an issue during the campaign, as both candidates opposed the appointment of an emergency manager. Napoleon said he would try to get rid of Orr; Duggan took a softer approach, saying he would try to work with Gov. Rick Snyder and the man Snyder appointed.
Two things are certain: It is unlikely a mayor with Duggan's ability and temperment will put up with being shunted aside, like Bing. But Duggan is no Dave Bing; Orr almost surely will have to use Duggan's talents. Orr can't forever quarterback the bankruptcy effort and restructure city government and oversee the city's day-to-day operations.
Duggan has suggested he could run the city while Orr deals with the city’s complicated attempt to use Chapter 9 to get rid of $18 billion in debt. He said he would form a cabinet of people who expect to spend four years in his administration. Orr, Duggan complained, is surrounded with short-term consultants who are running the city but failing to produce any discernible changes in Detroit’s notoriously bad services.
“I’m hoping it will be a constructive partnership,” Duggan said recently.
Orr reacted to Duggan’s victory with tact, saying in a statement: “I look forward to working with Mayor-elect Mike Duggan to build the vibrant and strong future the citizens of Detroit deserve.”
Orr said his office in the coming days will meet with Duggan to discuss their future collaboration on Detroit’s turnaround.
Snyder said: “I look forward to working with him on making Detroit a safe and attractive place for people to live, work, invest, and do business.”
But even a collaboration raises questions: Who will supervise Gary Brown, Orr's deputy? Will Police Chief James Craig report to Orr or Duggan? City government is all about lines of authority, and there seems to be plenty of opportunity for getting those lines crossed when Duggan starts reporting for work Jan. 1.
His victory Tuesday was an improbable conclusion to a campaign that essentially began when Duggan, 55, moved from his longtime home in Livonia to Detroit’s Palmer Park neighborhood in 2012.
In relocating from the suburbs, Duggan was copying Bing’s playbook; he moved to Detroit from Franklin to run for mayor.
The comparison stops there. Duggan’s race set him apart in a city that is more than 83 percent black. His long experience working in Detroit helped to defuse some of the criticism about a white man running black Detroit, and Duggan further smoothed his sudden arrival by embarking on a listening tour that eventually totaled 250 house parties.
And, where Duggan discussed the need to bring Detroiters together as the campaign got underway, Napoleon spent the pre-primary weeks attempting to paint Duggan as an outsider “who slept in Livonia” while Napoleon, the true Detroiter, patrolled the streets of the city as a cop who rose through the ranks to chief.
Before the primary, Duggan left the race after opponents won court challenges, saying he turned in nominating signatures two weeks before he would have been a legal resident of the city for a full year, as the charter requires.
But Duggan rattled Napoleon by winning the primary as a write-in candidate, garnering 20,000 more votes.
Duggan hammered on what he called his history as a turnaround expert and raised millions of dollars from Detroit’s corporate elite, eventually building a 5-to-1 advantage over Napoleon. That cash enabled Duggan to saturate the airwaves with commercials, among other advantages.
During the campaign, Duggan said he would combine more than a dozen poorly functioning city hall departments into a Department of Neighborhoods to ease access for residents and businesses. He vowed to seize drug houses and abandoned homes and fill them new residents. He promised to improve police response times and to start a city-run insurance company to help Detroiters cut premiums for their cars and homes.
Despite his brains and experience, Duggan will have his hands full when he starts one of the toughest jobs in big-city America.
Even if Orr manages to wipe clean Detroit’s balance sheet, the new mayor will face a city that is filled with abandoned buildings, malfunctioning street lights and vacant land. Too many residents are poor and under-employed.
Duggan has made clear he is no fan of expanding agriculture or turning unused land into a "green city" of swales and ponds. "Every neighborhood has a future" was his mantra during the campaign. Fulfilling that promise is going to be much more difficult as mayor, and he might have to perform triage on Detroit's 139 square miles in ways he never imagined as a candidate.
Every mayor since Albert Cobo in the 1950s has enjoyed some successes, but by the end of each mayor' terms, the city overall had declined in many measurable ways, the result being the badly wounded Detroit of 2013. That's the city Duggan inherits. Reversing that trend will be his quest.
Voice hoarse, he addressed his supporters in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel inside the Renaissance Center Tuesday night, though his speech momentarily came to a halt when a microphone malfunctioned – perhaps a metaphor for his crippled city.
“Now the real work begins,” Duggan said.