Detroit Elects Former Hospital CEO as Next Mayor

Mike Duggan, the former head of the Detroit Medical Center, is the city's first white mayor in 40 years.
by Ryan Holeywell | November 6, 2013 AT 11:00 AM

Detroit residents elected former hospital CEO Mike Duggan mayor on Tuesday, marking the first time in 40 years the city has voted a white candidate to the office.

Duggan's election comes at an unusual time for the city. Because it's essentially been taken over by the state government, Duggan's decision-making ability will be severely limited, and for now, state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr is still calling the shots.

During the campaign, Duggan -- who's credited with turning around the finances of the Detroit Medical Center, the city's largest employer -- shrewdly portrayed himself as budget and numbers expert poised to bring Detroit back from the financial brink.

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"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," Duggan told the Washington Post. "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."

Duggan became the Detroit Medical Center's CEO in 2004 at a time when it was headed toward bankruptcy, but by the time he stepped down last year, it was earning $2 billion in annual revenue.

Observers say the fact that that a city that's 83 percent black elected Duggan -- who's white and lived in the suburbs until just over a year ago  -- likely signals that Detroiters are more interested in solving the city's financial crisis than identity politics.

Duggan defeated Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County Sheriff and a former Detroit police chief. Napoleon's campaign tried to portray Duggan as an outside, opportunistic candidate. This wasn't difficult to do; Duggan only moved to Detroit last year and election officials removed him from the August primary ballot due to questions about his residency. Duggan ultimately won more than half the votes in the primary via a write-in campaign.

"The outsider stuff is falling on more deaf ears," says John Klemanski, a political science professor at nearby Oakland University.

In fact, Klemanski says, the outsider image may have actually helped him. Some speculated that Duggan was especially popular specifically because although he has worked in politics -- he's previously served as county prosecutor and deputy executive with Wayne County -- he's never worked for the city.  Less than a month ago, during the home stretch of the campaign, a federal judge sentenced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to 28 years in prison following racketeering and extortion convictions.

Duggan, meanwhile, emphasized his financial acumen and said Napoleon wasn't ready for the job. "Are you electing a police chief or are you electing a mayor?" Duggan said earlier this year. "If you could show me one thing Benny's ever turned around financially in his life, I'll sign up to be his campaign manager. But the fact is what this city needs right now is somebody with experience in financial and business turnaround as well as law enforcement."

Duggan's 's election didn't come as a surprise, as he held a commanding lead over Napoleon in the weeks leading up to the vote. Both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News endorsed Duggan.

"He evinces an instinctive understanding of the connection between politics and policy; moreover, he’s a deal-maker who knows how to get things done, a quality that in recent years has been in short supply in the mayor’s office," the Free Press wrote.

One of the key differences between the candidates is that while both Duggan and Napoleon oppose the state's imposition of an emergency manager on Detroit, Duggan has signaled a willingness to work with Orr, while Napoleon unequivocally called Orr's appointment illegal. That distinction has drawn praise from some observers who believe Duggan's approach is more likely to benefit the city in the long-run.

"In a way, (Duggan's) is a more reasonable approach," Klemanski says. "I think Napoleon is trying to appeal to the 'we are Detroiters, we don't need help' sort of attitude. The fact is, the city needs help."

But the job facing Duggan in Detroit is vastly larger than anything the hospital ever encountered. The city is in the midst of hearings to determine whether it's eligible for federal bankruptcy protection, and state officials say Detroit is $18 billion in debt.

Though critics say Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder have overstated the extent of the city's financial troubles, there's no doubt they are severe. The city is also plagued by an estimated 78,000 vacant structures; more than a third of its residents live in poverty; and its violent crime rate is rising.

Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, says Duggan is known for his direct, to-the-point style, and he isn’t someone who’s very interested in symbolic politics.

In the end, it appears Detroit residents cared less about whether Duggan was an outsider and instead responded to his reputation as someone who gets things done. Voters, Thompson says, "want their street lights and police."

Thompson also says it's smart that Duggan has signaled a focus on public safety. Home prices and employment levels have started to rebound in recent years, and finding a way to cut crime is critical to keeping that momentum going.

If the city gets the bankruptcy protection it's seeking, Duggan could find himself in the unpopular and politically dangerous position of presiding over a city where thousands of employees could see their pensions slashed. Thomspon says Duggan will likely distance himself from those decisions if they occur.

In addition to his financial expertise, Duggan has touted his experience with economic development, citing the downtown stadium deals he helped negotiate while working with the county, and an $850 million investment in new hospital building while leading the medical center. He -- like most politicians -- emphasized his intention to make jobs a priority in his administration.

"A lot of what a mayor can do is attract business and incentivize entrepreneurship," Thompson says. "They can't turn around the economy. They can influence it."

Editor's Note: Due to a technical error, this article was temporarily published prematurely. We regret the mistake.