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Detroit mayor-elect says he resents focus on race

Wednesday - 11/6/2013, 8:00pm  ET

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Detroit's mayor-elect said Wednesday that far too much had been made of his skin color during a historic write-in campaign and general election victory 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.

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