Aside from the buzz around Mayor-elect Mike Duggan’s historic rise to the top leadership of the city Tuesday, Nov. 5, another interesting twist to last week’s election is the number of new faces that were elected to the Detroit City Council.
For example, the council will have its first Hispanic member in Raquel Castaneda-Lopez representing Southwest Detroit, which marks a seismic shift in the political coalition of Detroit’s legislative body.
But beyond the new faces on the council that also includes Mary Sheffield, Scott Benson, Gabe Leland and George Cushingberry who is a fixture in Detroit politics, lies the question: Who will be the next council president?
Four incumbents were re- elected and one of them will emerge as head of the most talked about and controversial legislative body in Southeast Michigan.
The Rev, Andre Spivey, Saunteel Jenkins, James Tate and Brenda Jones, the highest vote getter, are returning to council but it is unclear who among the four will be chosen by the body to be its new leader.
Jenkins has been the president of the council since the sudden disappearance of Charles Pugh, and she has indicated an interest in serving in that role if her colleagues choose her.
But political observers are calling for a different council this time around, even as it seeks to install a new president, especially in the era of council-by-districts for the first time in 100 years.
“The new city council is an interesting mix of old and new. I’m interested in seeing how newcomers Sheffield, Benson and Castaneda-Lopez and seasoned newcomers like Cushingberry and Leland interact with incumbent council members,” said Erica Hill, Detroit political observer and campaign veteran who has worked on a number of elections as well as in city government. Both Cushingberry and Leland served in the Michigan legislature before their election to the city council.
Hill said district-wide council members will be held more accountable to the districts that they serve.
However, she said it is important to define what these new members can do, especially in the era of an emergency manager.
“The challenge in this is that the council members, both old and new, need to be honest with themselves and their constituents about what they can and cannot do within their districts and at-large. They are the legislative body of government in a strong executive branch-led city,” Hill said. “The council/mayor relationship is a check and balance process.”
She also noted that the council should create its own plan based on the city’s master plan.
“They are the voice of their constituents,” she said, adding that as the highest voter getter, Jones is positioned to be the leader of the council.
The president will have to be chosen by the members according to the new charter, instead of the previous practice of selecting the president based on who got the highest number of votes at the polls.
Eric Foster, political consultant who has conducted a number of polls to test the pulse of Detroit voters on a wide range of issues, said the council election is a significant shift.
Foster pointed out that there are seven members who are younger than age 44 (Benson, Jenkins, Castaneda-Lopez, Leland, Sheffield, Tate and Spivey) and five are under 40.
“This new group of younger and diverse professionals have the opportunity to craft legislative policy to fit the Detroit that we need to be, one that values seniors and those who have stayed and the families and young professionals that are needed to grow the tax base and improve the sustainability of our neighborhoods,”Foster said.
“This new group is also less connected to the traditional organizations and stakeholders than former council members. Those stakeholders will need to modernize their approach and policy initiatives to fit with the paradigm of these new councilmembers.”
Foster said staying with the theme of giving a young generation voice, the leadership of the council should remain with Jenkins and Spivey.
“They can also help shape a deeper data- driven approach to appropriations decisions and policy enactments to support making the product that is ‘Detroit’ work for residents, businesses and new customers to the city,” he said.
The Detroit City Council is one of the country’s few full time legislative bodies, and in a time when resources have been dwindling, some have called for the council to go part time.
First instituted in 1824, and once called the Common Council, the body has been at the center of some of the most interesting political turmoil in Detroit’s history which includes the constant tug of war between the council and the mayor.
For example, in 2005. at the height of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s era, four members of that council did not attend the mayor’s State of the City Address because of serious political disagreements with the mayor who is now headed to prison.
The former council president, the late Maryann Mahaffey, JoAnn Watson, Sharon McPhail and Barbara-Rose Collins all insisted that the city charter did not mandate them to attend the event.
The only members who attended Kilpatrick’s speech were Sheila Cockrel, Ken Cockrel Jr., Alberta Tinsley-Talabi and Alonzo Bates who later went to federal prison.
Mahaffey’s contention at the time was that the mayor was always seeking to tarnish the image of the council in the eyes of the public.
“During last year’s address the council heard for the first time the mayor had arranged for the purchase of the old train station in Southwest Detroit to transform it into a headquarters for the police. Council members were treated disrespectfully,” Collins said.
Kilpatrick, understanding the art of politics and persuasion, was known for presenting flowers and roses to individual council members before budget sessions began. That was his way of making amends with the body he needed to approve his proposals. The impact of those flower gestures was that the mayor received a less hostile atmosphere during the question and answer sessions and often got his proposals passed.
On the other hand, Mayor Dave Bing did not present flowers and his tenure was marked by bitter fights with the council which claimed the mayor was not communicating with them.
But in interviews, Bing has always maintained that he won’t compromise what was best for the city and in its interests.
It remains to be seen how this new council will work with Duggan, even though the former head of the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne County Prosecutor has expressed strong interest in building a solid working relationship with the city council.
Duggan cited as an example a lunch meeting he had with new member Benson during a town hall meeting where he was asked about his impression of the new city council.