One week ago Mildred Madison of the Detroit League of Women Voters walked into the Detroit City Clerk’s Office on the second floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building and presented two bank boxes of petitions to City Clerk Janice Winfrey. On those petitions were over 38,000 signatures of Detroit voters calling for the question of electing City Council by districts — seven members from neighborhood districts and two at-large — to be placed on the ballot in November. It was a moment that was overshadowed by the outcome of the election the day before.
Those of us who have followed the corruption and scandals of our recent history know how this one act, overshadowed as it was on the day it happened, has the potential to grow in the months to come and may ultimately define the future of our city.
Mildred Madison (left), head of the League of Women Voters of Detroit (LWVD), with Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey.
Madison’s effort to make sure the voice of the people is heard so that next year’s Charter Review Commission has a clear understanding of Detroit’s interest in districts, gives voters a seat at the table. Now the question becomes, what’s next? Detroiters who support electing council by district recognize that our current system isn’t working. When only 15 percent of the population votes, when the ballot, with over 200 candidates on it is too big to fit in the privacy sleeve, when incumbent candidates do not have a reasonable expectation of democratic opposition because candidates are running alongside but not against them, it’s time to take a good long look at the system.
Supporters of districts say we need to balance the name recognition that comes through celebrity and the media with personal name recognition that comes through interacting with our candidates at block clubs, Sunday services, schools, and in line at the checkout. We need candidates who understand our concerns. Supporters of districts believe that the best way for a councilperson to understand a neighborhood is to live in it.
They have a point. Every Detroiter knows that to understand this city you have to be here. You just can’t “get” Detroit in a visit, and candidates can’t just breeze into your neighborhood from the other side of town and understand your issues. Elections in Detroit are the only time anyone would dare to suggest that an eastsider would understand the west side or vice versa. This is a big place. Districts have become the change Detroiters talk about when they imagine a better future. Most of the candidates running for Charter Commission and City Council have already publicly declared their support for districts. It’s the word on the street, it’s what people hear when they put an ear to the ground. While there may be some who benefit from the corruption of the status quo, most of us are tired and are ready for meaningful change.
So what is Madison’s opposition to do?
There will be Detroiters who will raise legitimate concerns about districts. Those concerns should be vigorously discussed and debated openly and publicly. Detroit is ready for that. After the last 18 months of political scandal, Detroit needs it, and it is rooted in the hope that we can do better.
A decision this important cannot happen behind closed doors; it should not be made by the elite or powerful special interests; it should be considered in our barbershops and at the bus stop, at work and on the street; it should be made by the people, for the people. We must decide if a new city emerges from the political scandal of old Detroit. Districts may be one of a hundred discussions taking place about how to fix our city, but it is the only one headed toward the ballot in November, the one that is making its way to the people. This is our decision and we must make it wisely.
Then there are the Detroiters who are on the gravy train. They will bend over backwards to find ways to kill districts and repackage and resell the status quo because they have a piece of the action. They are the ones who created the pay-to-play culture and don’t want it to be affected. They do not want the debate or the vote, they want to suppress it. They will spread rumors to confuse and complicate the issue. They will try to convince voters their voice does not need to be heard.
They will attack Ms. Madison and try to discredit her despite her years of service to the community. They will raise questions about the legality of amending the charter to include districts, even though civic and legal scholars not on the payroll who have studied this amendment have concluded it is perfectly legal.
They will talk about 80-year-old corruption like it is more relevant than six-month-old corruption. They will cry about inhibiting the Charter Commission despite the fact that many Charter Commission candidates welcome a vote because it will give their discussions clarity and direction. It will be our job as voters to separate citizens with legitimate concerns from those working to prevent and discourage the people of Detroit from voting on districts.
And so, one week later, Mildred Madison, quietly waits to see how she will have to defend the simple idea, our most basic democratic principle, that the right to govern is derived from the consent of the governed. Someone is going come out of the woodwork, and pat us all on the head and tell us not to worry… they will take care of districts… eventually.
Someone will try to convince us that Detroiters shouldn’t have a voice for change in November. The same special interests and forces of the status quo tried to suppress Mildred Madison when she started. Last Wednesday she and 38,000 Detroiters overcame, and the fight for the future of a new Detroit can begin.