DETROIT — A former write-in candidate once thought to have little chance of surviving Detroit's primary election is favored to become the city's new mayor, a job with limited power as the debt-ridden city moves toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history under a state overseer.
The candidates were among the voters going to the polls Tuesday morning. Front-runner Mike Duggan, a former health care executive, and Benny Napoleon, the Wayne County sheriff, both oppose the Michigan takeover of city finances by gubernatorial appointee Kevin Orr.
"I'm going to try to shorten Kevyn Orr's stay," Duggan told The Associated Press.
The emergency financial manager filed for bankruptcy in July and says Detroit's debt is at least $18 billion, much of it for retiree pensions and health benefits.
Detroit has undergone a sharp economic and demographic decline over six-plus decades, with the population falling from 1.8 million in 1950 to just 700,000, largely low-income residents today. That process has been brought about by a mix of global economic forces, political corruption and municipal mismanagement.
Duggan, an ex-county prosecutor and former chief of the Detroit Medical Center, said he wants to persuade Gov. Rick Snyder to craft a plan to resuscitate the city's fiscal condition.
Snyder has repeatedly defended his decision to put Orr in the driver's seat at City Hall.
"Detroit's fiscal crisis was six decades in the making," Snyder said in a statement last week. "My job is to make the tough decisions to resolve the problems we face today, not ignore them."
Despite being kicked off the August primary ballot due to a residency issue, Duggan received about 48,700 write-in votes. Napoleon, the sheriff and a former Detroit police chief, was on the ballot and received about 28,300 votes.
"Didn't even have to write in this time," Duggan said, smiling after emerging from the voting booth Tuesday morning.
A poll released last week showed Napoleon lagging well behind Duggan, who also holds an almost 3-to-1 fundraising and spending edge. If Duggan is elected, he would become Detroit's first white mayor since Roman Gribbs, whose term ended at the end of 1973. The city now is more than 80 percent black.
Napoleon, who is black, also predicted victory.
"Mike and I have always been fine. This is not personal. It's politics," he said after voting Tuesday morning. "At the end of the day, I'm going to win and he's going to lose."
Current mayor and ex-NBA star Dave Bing did not seek re-election.
Both candidates campaigned on fixing Detroit's deteriorating neighborhoods and reducing the high crime rate in a city that struggles to respond to 911 calls on time. Detroit has more than 30,000 vacant houses and buildings.
On Tuesday, Duggan told reporters that if he's elected his first order of business will be calling the city's police chief Wednesday and working to improve police response time.
Larry Waldon, a process technician at a plastics company, voted for Napoleon, because he says the sheriff is truly invested in the city.
"I really think Mike Duggan would be a great choice short-term, not long-term," said Waldon, 38, who believes Duggan wants to use the mayor's job as a stepping stone to higher office. He said Napoleon is "the type who will be in Detroit for a while."
Transportation company owner Mark Gibson, 51, argued that Napoleon was "just part of the status quo," and that Duggan "is going to be the best man for the job."
Either candidate would face challenges with any initiatives because Orr must OK all spending requests.
"I think they're kidding themselves if they think they are going to regain financial control of this city," said Detroit-based bankruptcy attorney Kenneth Schneider. "Even after Kevyn Orr, there will be a financial advisory board that will maintain control of the city's finances indefinitely. The first part for any new mayor is to accept that and work with the state on how to right this city's finances."