Smith, Jay Scott, Newsweek
Byline: Jay Scott Smith
A white candidate for (gasp!) Detroit.
This week in front of more than 500 supporters--and after months of dodging questions about whether he would run--Mike Duggan announced his candidacy for mayor of Detroit. A former prosecutor, Duggan has the support of two former police chiefs and various members of the city's politically influential religious community; he also has a recent successful stint as CEO of Detroit Medical Center (DMC) under his belt. Yet much of the discussion about his candidacy on local talk radio and in the papers is about not his resume or his proposals but rather his race: Duggan would be the first white mayor of this majority-black city in 40 years.
Detroit last elected a white mayor, Roman Gribbs, in 1969. The Detroit City Council has seated just two white members since 1990 and none since 2009. Southwest Detroit, home to most of the city's Latino population, has never had a representative in city government. And the racially charged rhetoric during local campaigns, which began in earnest under longtime mayor Coleman Young, who served five terms from 1974 to 1994, can at times border on the absurd. During last year's Democratic primaries, for instance, former U.S. congressman Hansen Clarke had the ethnicity of his dead mother challenged in a political ad by an unnamed foe.
So why is Duggan's candidacy suddenly viable? In short: the city's dismal financial state--with a reported debt of $14 billion, it now faces the prospect of bankruptcy or being taken over by an emergency financial manager--has made Duggan's business background a powerful selling point. When he took over the DMC in 2004, it had lost $500 million in five years and was facing the closure of its two biggest hospitals. Duggan shifted resources to patient care and created a guarantee that ER patients would see a doctor within 29 minutes. He also spearheaded a program for small businesses that provided health care to 20,000 uninsured people. …