Detroit’s new technocrat mayor

November 7, 2013, 12:49 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Mike Duggan’s mayoral bid got off to an inauspicious start.

First, he was kicked off the ballot during the primary for filing his election paperwork two weeks too early. Then, he briefly gave up on the race before changing his mind and jumping back in. And then, a barber with an exceedingly similar name, Mike Dugeon, also decided to enter the race — apparently just to mess with people.

Against the odds, Duggan pulled out a big win in the primary (very few people misspelled the name as “Dugeon” or similar). But just a few weeks later, the county declared the victory invalid and said that his opponent, Wayne County Sherriff Benny Napoleon, had actually won by seven points. That decision was later overturned.

As bizarre as it all may seem, that laundry list of small-D democratic hiccups is nothing compared to the absurdity of Detroit’s larger problems. The city is in such bad shape and so deep in debt that it has been placed under state-mandated emergency management, meaning that once in office, Detroit’s new mayor will likely have virtually no power until the governor’s appointed emergency manager leaves. That’s expected to happen next fall. Meanwhile, the courts are still deliberating on whether the city, the country’s largest to ever file for bankruptcy, can claim that status at all.

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It was against that backdrop that Duggan eked out a victory Tuesday night, beating Napoleon by 10 points. Duggan is the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, and was largely credited with turning around the now-thriving hospital system. Backed by the Detroit Regional Chamber (and notably spurned by Detroit’s formidable union base), Duggan is expected to be a friend to the city’s business community.

“We know him as a business leader, and obviously as a business leader, he shares our interests in job creation and economic growth in the city and throughout the region,” Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah said after endorsing Duggan, who is a Democrat, in July. Indeed, stressing his successful turnaround of the Detroit Medical Center, Duggan has run heavily on a message of technocratic competence. That’s a break from politics as usual in a city where just a few years ago a council member broke into a rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in response to plans to expand a convention center. Perhaps not surprisingly, Duggan did not win the endorsement of many of the city’s sitting officials.

Then there’s perhaps the most visible way Duggan’s ascent to power is unusual for Detroit: In a city that’s 82% African American, he will be the city’s first white mayor in four decades. Residents said that didn’t matter this time around.  Some 80% of Detroiters indicated they did not consider race a factor at the ballot box. In a city deeply scarred by racial tension, that’s saying something.

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“Competency has to come before race,” wrote Detroit Free Press editorial board member Stephen Henderson, who is black, in an op-ed earlier this week. “They are not mutually exclusive considerations, but for far too long in Detroit, the playing to the latter has wiped out proper attention to the former.”

It’s tempting to write off the significance of Duggan’s election to the powerlessness of the post. But that would be to forget that the mayoral term is four years. That still leaves more than three years for the new mayor to run the city. He will come into power at a critical time, with the city in a state of flux. In the shadow of bankruptcy proceedings it seems insignificant now, but this mayorship may well prove to be an extremely powerful position — and hopefully a pivotal one.

As for Dugeon, he was briefly tempted to write in his own name on the ballot, but ended up going with Duggan. He told the local news Tuesday: “At the end of the day, I just want to see what doing something different would do.”