Just over a year ago, Mike Duggan was a highly paid hospital executive living in the suburbs. Now he is on the cusp of becoming the next mayor of this bankrupt and beleaguered city.

Duggan, 55, holds a commanding lead in the polls over Wayne County Sheriff and former Detroit police chief Benny Napoleon, 58, going into Tuesday’s election, putting him on course to become Detroit’s first white mayor in four decades.

It is an unlikely story for an 83 percent black city that stood at the forefront of African American political power when Coleman Young became its first black mayor in 1974. Before Young, the Motor City had two black congressmen: Charles Diggs Jr. and John Conyers Jr., Democrats who helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.

That political leadership, coupled with good-paying auto industry jobs and the city’s standing as the original home of Motown Records, made Detroit a hub of black influence. But before long, the jobs began to disappear, and middle-class flight accelerated. Those problems were intensified in recent years by a flagrant corruption scandal involving former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D), who is serving a 28-year prison sentence, and the bankruptcy filing in July, which altered the city’s politics.

“I am noticing that a lot of people are not talking about voting for somebody who looks like them but somebody who thinks like them,” said Darrell Reed, 40, pastor of Spirit of Love Missionary Baptist Church, where Duggan greeted volunteers gathering for a patrol aimed at minimizing the annual spree of Halloween arsons, a long tradition here.

Duggan said long-suffering voters seem less interested in his race than in his standing as a self-proclaimed turnaround expert with years of experience reviving troubled area institutions.

“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 said in an interview. “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.”

Although Duggan moved into Detroit’s stately Palmer Woods neighborhood just last year, he was born and raised in the city and has worked here for the past 32 years. He also is familiar with its tough politics, having worked for Wayne County, which includes Detroit.

His campaign has attracted strong financial backing from the city’s business community, allowing him to outspend Napoleon by about 4 to 1.

The outpouring for Duggan seems to have left his opponent a little stunned. Napoleon has emphasized his history as a lifelong Detroit resident and a police chief who oversaw a large reduction in crime, and as someone who will stand up to the city’s emergency manager.

He also argues that Detroit’s problems are overstated, something he says has helped Duggan.

“When you convince people that they are desperate and their desperation is caused by somebody who looks like them, it starts people to thinking that ‘maybe we do need to do something different,’ ” Napoleon said. “And that is the refrain that is going out.”

Kil Huh of the Pew Charitable Trusts explains to Nia-Malika Henderson what went wrong in the Motor City. (The Washington Post)
Seeking a ‘life preserver’

Duggan, a former Wayne County prosecutor, is credited with steering Detroit Medical Center, the city’s biggest employer, to profitability. The hospital was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after losing a half-billion dollars in the five years before Duggan took over in 2004. In 2010, it was sold to Vanguard Health Systems, a private hospital company that has pumped more than $1.5 billion into its operation.

In the 1990s, as an aide to then-Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, Duggan took the helm of the financially troubled regional bus system, eliminating a large budget deficit and improving service. Before that, he was integral to the creation of a plan to lift the county out of a long era of severe budget deficits.

“How is it that Duggan, a white guy who moved into the city from Livonia, is doing so well? It seems to defy logic,” said Bill Ballenger, founder of Inside Michigan Politics. “But 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. And Detroit is desperate for a Mr. Fix-It.”

Still, Duggan’s past challenges are nothing like what he will confront if he is elected mayor. Vast tracts of the sprawling city have been reduced to urban prairie as abandoned properties have been demolished. Tens of thousands of buildings sit vacant and unsecured, inviting squatters and drug dealers.

Some 40 percent of the streetlights do not work. Violent crime remains a severe problem, and police and ambulance response times are among the worst of any big city in the country, at times stretching to nearly an hour.

The population has shriveled by more than 26 percent in the past 13 years. And an estimated 42 percent of the remaining 701,000 residents — and three out of five of the city’s children — live in poverty, according to census statistics and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Topping things off, the city is an estimated $18 billion in debt. Its financial future is being hashed out in court, where a federal judge is in the middle of a hearing to determine Detroit’s eligibility for bankruptcy protection.

Many observers consider approval of the city’s bankruptcy petition a foregone conclusion. A restructuring deal could involve the sale of valuable assets, including parts of the world-class collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It also is likely to mean that city employees and 23,000 retirees would lose parts of their promised pensions and retiree health-care benefits.

A recovery plan

Meanwhile, the city’s finances and daily operations are under the control of Kevyn Orr, a former D.C. bankruptcy lawyer whom Gov. Rick Snyder (R) appointed emergency manager in March. His term runs at least until September, when a super­majority of the City Council could vote him out.

Duggan, who like Napoleon is a Democrat, says that if he is elected, his first order of business will be to seek a meeting with Snyder and Orr. He says that his experience as a hospital executive taught him how Detroit could cut its debt substantially by changing how retiree health benefits are delivered and that worker pensions — as well as city assets, such as its art collection — should be held sacrosanct.

He also has laid out a plan to let the city more quickly seize abandoned housing and to create incentives for homeowners to move away from lightly populated blocks, allowing the land to be converted into urban gardens and recreation areas.

He also is critical of Orr’s running of Detroit, saying most residents tell him that services have not improved since his appointment. “I don’t think he has focused on the operations of the city,” Duggan said. “I think he has focused on the complexities of the bankruptcy.”

Outgoing Mayor Dave Bing (D) has complained that Orr has not consulted him on key appointments and decisions, something Duggan says he would not tolerate.

Although he has a nearly 2-to-1 lead in the polls, Duggan has not won over Rep. Conyers, who endorsed Napoleon late last month. Conyers told voters that he supports the sheriff “because he is one of us.”

But that pitch, aimed at Duggan’s years living in the suburbs and perhaps, too, his race, does not seem to have the appeal that it might have had in years past.

“The city is going down because of people who have been elected in the past,” said Eudelia Brown, 41, a part-time security guard and mother of six, as she paused from sweeping leaves in front of her east Detroit home. “If Duggan turned around the hospital when they were about to go bankrupt, then he’s the man.”