It isn’t just the 10 speeding tickets accumulated by Mike Duggan over just five years that ought to impede his attempt to be elected mayor when Detroiters go to the polls on Tuesday, or the fact that he only recently moved into the city from the comfy suburb of Livonia. No, the real issue surely is his colour.
Except it isn’t. Unless the polling is badly off, there is little doubt that once the votes are in, Mr Duggan will have beaten fellow Democrat, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, to be elected the first white mayor of what is one of America’s most fabled – and financially beleaguered – major cities since Coleman Young took the office in 1974.
The result would mark a significant departure for Detroit – a city whose population is 82 per cent African-American – and would be yet another sign that America is placing less importance on the race of its political candidates. Mr Duggan’s story has drawn comparisons to the fictional character Tommy Carcetti from the hit American TV series The Wire. In the show, Carcetti, who is white, is elected mayor in the predominantly black city of Baltimore.
A sense that Detroit’s citizens would be best served by an outsider appears to prevail ahead of this election. Heavy on voters’ minds is the sentencing last month of Kwame Kilpatrick, the last mayor but one, to 28 years in prison for corruption.
Reflective of the shift is the support given to Mr Duggan, best known for rescuing the city’s hospital system from near insolvency, by Minister Malik Shabazz, leader of the New Black Panther Nation in the city. He argues notably that isn’t just Detroit but America that has learned to put competence before colour.
“In the last two national elections, African Americans have asked the nation to choose the best person for the job and not get caught up in colour. And twice, Barack Obama has won,” Mr Shabazz said recently. “Now, in Detroit, in 2013, the best man running is a white brother, and that’s OK.”
If Mr Duggan, 55, sails through now it will not be because he had an easy time getting here. He will also face severe headwinds once in office. In the summer he briefly abandoned his bid when opponents sought to disqualify him as not being a bona fide Detroit resident. After backers persuaded him not to throw in the towel, he presented himself as a write-in for the primary election in August. In a crowded field, he won 50 per cent support.
Exactly why he would want the job is something else. The city is a symbol of decline, whether it’s the thousands of abandoned homes, the swathes of untended city land, the shrinkage of its population (down 26 per cent in 13 years) or the 40 per cent of its street lights that don’t work. Last spring, the state imposed an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, on Detroit to see if he can reverse the decline and confront debts totalling $18bn (£11bn), essentially sidelining the outgoing Mayor, Dave Bing. A judge is to rule soon on his request that the city be declared bankrupt.
In theory, Mr Orr will be gone later next year, and while both candidates have deplored the bankruptcy filing, which threatens pension payments to thousands of current and retired municipal workers, Mr Duggan, in contrast to his opponent, has promised to try to work with him on finding solutions and not turn his back on him. Among Mr Duggan’s first priorities: persuading Mr Orr not to sell off some of the city’s treasures, including the art collection in its main museum.
A former prosecutor for Wayne County, in which the city sits, Mr Duggan took over the Detroit Medical Centre, the city’s largest single employer, in 2004 when it also faced bankruptcy after bleeding $500m over five years. He returned it to profitability and it was successfully sold to a private hospital concern three years ago.
“I know what it means to bring an organisation back,” Mr Duggan said in his last debate. As he told The Washington Post this week: “A major part of why I have so much support is that everyone in the city understands that if you’re broke, you can’t deliver any services. So I think there is a strong feeling in the city that we need a mayor who can balance the budget and operate the city well financially.”
Bill Ballenger, of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said: “There is a feeling of total disgust among voters about what has happened to Detroit and there is a willingness to reach out to the most prominent life preserver. And that is Mike Duggan, based on his reputation as a Mr Fix-It.”
If the speeding infractions haven’t hurt him, perhaps it is because of the prouder part of Detroit’s heritage as the cradle of America’s car industry. “It’s a problem I have – I schedule too many things in too little time,” he told a local newspaper. “I’m working very hard right now to slow down, but I have no excuse for it.”
Power struggle: other big contests
It’s an off-year for federal elections, but American voters still face important choices today.
VIRGINIA/Governor: Terry McAuliffe, Democrat fundraiser and best pal of the Clintons, should prevail over Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican with Tea Party backing.
NEW JERSEY/Governor: With one term nearly behind him and high expectations he will run for president in 2016, Republican Chris Christie is clear favourite to win against Democrat Barbara Buono.
NEW YORK/ Mayor: He came from far behind, but with a pledge to narrow the gap between rich and poor, Bill de Blasio is set to be the first Democrat mayor for 20 years.
BOSTON/Mayor: With Tom Menino’s 20-year reign coming to an end, voters have seen the first competitive race in a generation. Democrat Marty Walsh may have a slight edge over John Connolly.