DETROIT - When Mike Duggan recites the oath of office in January as Detroit's first white mayor in four decades, he may — in a way — give the eulogy to a period of racial divide that has defined much of the city's past.
Unofficial general election results Tuesday night showed Duggan defeating Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon 55 per cent to 45 per cent with all of the city's 614 precincts reporting.
But Detroit officially could be bankrupt by the time Duggan moves into City Hall. He also 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 neighbourhoods. Public transportation is in shambles, as are other city services.
Those are things Paulette Warren wants corrected and it doesn't matter to her whether the person who does it is white, black, red or yellow.
"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 colour."
Race is as much a part of Detroit, its politics, citizenry and relationship with suburban neighbours 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. A deadly race riot in 1967 saw parts of the city burn over several days and hastened white flight. And when a brash, black labour leader named Coleman A. Young was elected mayor in 1973, Detroit's growing black populace began to flex its political muscle.
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 neighbourhoods and better schools, leaving parts of the city virtually empty. They also took their money and much of the city's tax base.
Detroit's population now is around 700,000 and expected to continue sliding.
State-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr says Detroit's debt is at least $18 billion. He has stopped making millions of dollars in bond debt payment 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 appeared Tuesday to have 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."
Detroit is more than 80 per cent black and until Duggan had not produced a strong white candidate for mayor since former police commissioner John F. Nichols challenged Young in 1973.
"When I started on this campaign, I was not under any illusion about the racial division in this country," Duggan said Tuesday night during his victory speech. "And I said from the beginning that the only way I could get past it was to sit with you . and get to know you one by one.
"At this moment what we have in common is much more powerful than what divides us. And now the real work begins."
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 ran as a write-in and received the most votes.
He campaigned heavily on his past work as president and CEO of the Detroit 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.
"He's got some business experience. You want someone in there who has experience on a major level," said Michael Twomey, who voted absentee for Duggan.
"I just want to see somebody in there with not just good intentions — somebody who can really do something ... I don't feel the city's had a strong mayor in a long time."
Twomey, a 67-year-old retired truck driver, said he is the only white resident on his northwest side block.
"They just want to see the city run and get back on its feet," he said of his black neighbours. "I think race has become less of an issue with the people with vested interest in the city — the homeowners."
Councilwoman Brenda Jones, who appeared to win 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?"
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