Mike Duggan campaigned on a platform to bring Detroit back from the political doldrums with 250 house parties, meeting with voters in their homes.
On Tuesday, those voters responded by electing the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center as the city’s first White mayor in 40 years.
Duggan defeated his opponent, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, by a 55-45 percent margin, sending a significant political message from Detroit’s electorate.
“I salute Sheriff Napoleon for his lifetime commitment to the city,” Duggan told supporters packed in the hundreds at the Marriott Hotel-Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit.
Duggan said when he started the campaign he was not under any illusion that the racial divide would not be an issue because “I know its roots are centuries old,” and he wanted to sit down with Detroiters to one-on-one to understand and know him better.
He said he will reach out to Gov. Rick Snyder and the Detroit City Council as well as emergency manager Kevyn Orr as he begins to put a cabinet together.
Orr sent out an e-mail hours after Duggan was declared the winner, congratulating the former prosecutor.
“In this time of important change for the city, Detroiters have come together to voice their desire for progress,” Orr said. “I look forward to working with Mayor-elect Mike Duggan to build the vibrant and strong future the citizens of Detroit deserve.”
Gov. Snyder also reached out in a message of felicitation.
“These are challenging times for our state’s largest city as we resolve problems that have been decades in the making. But I know that brighter days are ahead and Detroit’s turnaround is already under way,” Snyder said. “My administration and I are committed to working collaboratively with Mayor-elect Duggan to ensure better services to the 700,000 people of Detroit and take the steps necessary to complete Detroit’s comeback as a vibrant, thriving city.”
During the campaigns and in the debates, Duggan had maintained that if elected he would put a team together to convince Snyder that Detroit doesn’t need an emergency manager. He said his experience of confronting the challenges of the Detroit Medical Center would equip him to help the city come out of its financial crisis.
And Snyder alluded to Duggan’s DMC record when he congratulated him Tuesday night.
“I want to congratulate Mike Duggan on being elected as the next mayor of Detroit. I look forward to working with him on making Detroit a safe and attractive place for people to live, work, invest and do business,” Snyder said. “Mayor-elect Duggan’s financial acumen and experience in turning around the Detroit Medical Center and other entities should serve him well in his new role.”
As the results were coming in Tuesday, Napoleon’s supporters gathered at the Roostertail expecting their candidate to win the race. But as anxious supporters waited into the night, reality began sinking in that Napoleon was losing the race to Duggan.
Greg Bowen, longtime Detroit political consultant and former Mayor Dennis Archer press secretary, said Napoleon’s win would have affirmed Black political leadership and identity in the city. But he also said Duggan’s win does on some level carry symbolism of racial reconciliation in the region, which he doesn’t believe it actually does.
“If anything, it destroys Black political power structure coming out of the Kilpatrick saga,” Bowens said. Bowens insisted that Duggan got a pass from the media, something that Napoleon echoed several times in the debates and in the last weeks of the campaign that his opponent got more favorable treatment from the press than he did.
Adolph Mongo, a political consultant, charged that the media that once branded Duggan as the author of the culture of corruption in Wayne County, abandoned its scrutiny of the candidate, referring to a column that Detroit News editorial page editor Nolan Finley once wrote about Duggan before he announced his candidacy.
Duggan has never been charged or accused of corruption in Wayne County.
“Mike Duggan did get a pass from the media,” Bowens said Tuesday night at Napoleon’s election watch party. “There was a liberal sensitivity around the issue of race as opposed to dealing with race head on, and the impact it has made people feel ignored.”
However, Bowens admitted that for some Whites who live and work in Detroit, Duggan’s election carries the same impact that President’s Obama election had on the nation’s psyche. “They feel that they do matter now and can relate to Duggan,” Bowens said, adding that it still does not dismiss the need to “affirm the African- American experience in this city because most young people do not have that frame of reference and it is important to affirm that culture.”
Heaster Wheeler, the former executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP who now works under Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, quickly dismissed Duggan’s win. “This election says billionaires can buy the mayor’s race. I’m not impressed,” Wheeler said.
“Money talks and billionaires who have no commitment to inclusion in this city have won.”
The influence of big money in the campaign was evident with Duggan receiving backing from the majority of the city’s private sector leaders, leaving his critics to charge that he was a tool of big business.
Duggan’s supporters fired back that maintaining some relationship with the private sector, which accounts for a significant amount of employment in the city, was important and that his former record as CEO would naturally endear him to the business community.
Wheeler said he supported Napoleon because “I wanted my 15-year-old son to see somebody that looks like him as mayor of his city. And I don’t need anyone to validate that.”
However Duggan’s campaign manager, Bryan Barnhill, an African American, in an earlier interview with this writer, said he takes the question of the city electing a White mayor seriously. “Growing up with Black people, being taught by Black teachers as I was raised in Detroit, shaped my outlook and made me have a profound appreciation for my identity,” Barnhill said. “It also made me profoundly sympathetic about the state of Black people globally. I think Black empowerment must occur in two phases.”
The first phase, according to Barnhill, is what he describes as the “individual empowerment, which is really about the extent to which we remove legal, social and psychological barriers that serve as an impediment to individual Black achievement.”
The second, Barnhill said, is “collective empowerment,” which he believes Duggan will be doing if he becomes mayor of this majority Black city, helping to address the crisis facing African Americans in urban centers such as this one.
“Mike’s platform will resoundingly benefit collective Black empowerment in this city and beyond,” Barnhill said. “Evaluating a candidate purely on the basis of skill set and background instead of race will have tremendous benefit for the people who are overwhelmingly African American.”