DETROIT (AP) — Detroit's mayor-elect said Wednesday that far too much had been made of his skin color during a successful campaign that will make him the predominantly black city's first white mayor in four decades.
Appearing at his first news conference as mayor-elect, Mike Duggan said he would meet over the next two days with Michigan's governor and Detroit's current leaders, including the state-appointed emergency manager who currently controls the cash-strapped city's checkbook.
With Detroit grappling with $18 billion in debt and awaiting a judge's ruling on whether it can move forward with a bankruptcy filing, Duggan said the race of the mayor is not a factor. "I resent it. I've resented it from the beginning," Duggan said. "People in this city got past it almost a year ago, as people got to know me and we started to relate as individuals."
Unofficial general election results Tuesday night showed Duggan, a former Detroit Medical Center chief executive, defeating Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon 55 percent to 45 percent. Napoleon is black.
Race, more specifically black and white, has defined Detroit for generations. More than 80 percent of the 700,000 people living in Detroit are black. The last time it had a white mayor, only about 44 percent of Detroit's 1.5 million residents were black and the city was only a few years removed from a race riot that left 43 people dead and dozens of buildings burned.
"Detroit became 'black Detroit' and the suburbs became the 'white suburbs, and people picked sides," then-mayor and now convicted felon Kwame Kilpatrick told The Associated Press for a story in 2007. Of the 10 cities of at least 100,000 people with the largest percentage of black residents, only New Orleans and Montgomery, Ala., have white mayors. The others have black mayors.
Duggan's election could help blur the color lines, but when he takes office in January Detroit officially could be bankrupt. He will be expected to have solutions for lowering one of the highest violent crime rates in the country — in a city that struggles to respond to 911 calls — and fixing Detroit's many crumbling neighborhoods. Public transportation is in shambles, as are other city services.
Those are things Paulette Warren wants corrected, and she said she couldn't care less about the race of the city's mayor. "When you call 911 you want to know an ambulance is coming," said Warren, who is black and voted Tuesday for Duggan. "It's all about who can do the job. It's not about color."
Race is as much a part of Detroit, its politics, citizenry and relationship with suburban neighbors as assembly lines and the cars that rolled across them. In the 1950s, about 1.8 million people lived in Detroit, but the lure of new homes in fresh suburbs started an exodus from the urban core. The 1967 riot hastened white flight. And when a brash, black labor leader named Coleman A. Young was elected mayor in 1973, Detroit's growing black populace began to flex its political muscle.
Young issued a warning to the city's crime element to leave Detroit at its Eight Mile Road city limits. Many whites in communities north of that demarcation were appalled and angered. The rift between them and black Detroiters widened.
But soon, the same suburbs that earlier welcomed white families became too attractive for the city's black middle class to ignore. Thousands of blacks also left Detroit for safer neighborhoods and better schools, leaving parts of the city virtually empty. They also took their money and much of the city's tax base.
Orr, appointed by Snyder to help turn the city around, has stopped making millions of dollars in bond debt payments and is trying to work out deals with some creditors while awaiting a federal judge's ruling on whether the city will be the largest in the country to be declared bankrupt.
"It's not black or white. It's green. It's who can bring money to Detroit to improve our city services," said black first-term Councilman Andre Spivey, who won his re-election bid in Detroit's fourth district. "A lot of people who are probably 45, 50 and older remember well when we had the last Caucasian mayor. For most folks, it's not an issue."
Duggan will succeed Mayor Dave Bing, who decided not to seek re-election. He is Detroit's first white mayor since Roman Gribbs, who decided not to seek re-election for a term that ended in 1973. Duggan moved to Detroit last year from Livonia, a predominantly white suburb just west of the city, to run for the job, but a residency issue forced him off the August primary ballot.
He campaigned heavily on his past work at the medical center and said that when he took over in 2004, the system was facing hospital closures. It later was sold for about $365 million. "The majority of the people voted for Mike, not so much Mike the white guy," Bing told the AP Wednesday. "They voted for Mike the person that they thought was the most qualified."
Duggan said Wednesday that he received a call from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was elected as a white mayor of Baltimore in 1999, then was re-elected four years later in a landslide. In 2000, that city's population was 60 percent black.
But Detroit Councilwoman Brenda Jones, who won her third consecutive term Tuesday, has an issue with Duggan not because he's white, but because he moved into Detroit to run for mayor. Black Detroiters have voted to put whites in public office in the past, said Jones, pointing to Maryann Mahaffey who spent 31 years on the council beginning in the early 1970s.
"Maryann Mahaffey was a true Detroiter," said Jones, who is black. "So, is it about Detroit being ready for a white mayor or about Detroit being ready for a Detroiter? Duggan has not lived in Detroit. How can I see him as a real Detroiter?"