Another Day Approaches
After more than 15 years of public service, including a stint as Detroit’s mayor, Ken Cockrel Jr. opines on his journey while the sun sets on his remaining time in office.
Published: May 8, 2013
In the history of Detroit politics, no one has had a career quite like Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.’s.
At 32, having worked as a journalist (including a stint writing columns for this paper) and then serving on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, the cum laude Wayne State University grad became the youngest person ever elected to the Detroit City Council, in 1997.
But the name zCockrel has long been famous in Detroit. The young councilman’s father, Ken Cockrel Sr., cast a long shadow. A brilliant and flamboyant attorney, the elder Cockrel was a self-described Marxist-Leninist who fought to help Detroit’s African-Americans gain political power in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s — eventually winning his own seat at the council table.
The son turned out to be more moderate than his firebrand father, providing a calm, thoughtful presence on a council often wracked by turmoil. During his tenure, two of Cockrel’s fellow council members were sent to prison for corruption. And in September 2008, as the council’s president, he became interim mayor after Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of perjury, a felony, and was forced to resign from office.
Cockrel tried to hold on to the job, but lost to current Detroit mayor Dave Bing in a special election held in the spring of 2009. He returned to the council, and then won re-election —although failing to capture enough votes to retain the council presidency.
Last year, as the city’s financial situation continued to deteriorate, Cockrel partnered with other council members to support entering into a consent agreement with the state that gave Lansing greater fiduciary control over the city’s finances.
After the state abrogated the consent agreement and appointed an emergency financial manager, Cockrel adopted a cooperative stance instead of fighting the EM’s appointment, saying he wants to help EM Kevyn Orr in his attempts to return the city to solvency. Some have heaped scorn on Cockrel for that decision, but he is unapologetic.
Now 47, Cockrel talked about why he’s leaving the council, what it was like being mayor, how it felt to be called “Shrek” by Monica Conyers, the weight of having a famous father, and what he thinks needs to be done for Detroit to reverse its long downward spiral.
Metro Times: The obvious first question: Why have you decided not to run for council again?
Ken Cockrel Jr.: Well, it’s a combination of different things. If I think back to when I first ran for City Council in 1997 … it was never with the intention that this is going to be what I do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t looking to pull a Maryann Mahaffey or a Clyde Cleveland and spend 20, 30 years on council. And that’s no disrespect to them … but that’s just not where my head was at.
And then, if I think back to about four years ago, when I was in the process of deciding what I wanted to do after that special election in the mayor’s race, when Bing was victorious, I was like, “What do I want to do?” I knew it didn’t make sense to me at that time to run for mayor again, because to turn around and run again I think probably would have been inviting the same result.
So it became a question of, “Do I want to step away now and do something different, or do I want to run again for City Council?” And I chose to run again for City Council because I felt that it was a critical time, and I felt that I had something of value to contribute at that point for the next four years. But it was in my head that, “OK, I’m going to run for council again, but this is probably going to be my last rodeo.”
MT: Losing to Dave Bing in that mayoral race had to hurt.
Cockrel: I have to admit, it was kind of rough at first. I did take it hard because, you know, I love the city of Detroit. I put a lot into the mayor’s job, and I felt that I was making a difference.
What I kind of liken it to … [is] when you get dumped … and this is not to knock Mayor Bing, but I felt that I was the better candidate. So the reaction is kind of like when your girlfriend dumps you, and you’re like, “You dumped me for him?”
It’s one thing when you get dumped for somebody who’s maybe got a little more money, got it together a bit more, you know, just a bit more focused, then you’re like, “OK, I can understand.” But then when you get dumped for somebody that you think is maybe not quite as on the ball as you, then it’s sort of like, “What the hell?” It was kind of that reaction. So it hurt at first.
MT: Did concern that council might be reduced to part-time enter into your decision to leave?
Cockrel: It was a factor — I’m not going to deny that. But, like I said, the biggest factor was that I’ve always believed the goal is to go in here and make a contribution and then move on and do something else. The reality is, I’m not a single guy. I’m married, I have five children; I’ve got two in college and that’ll soon be three, because my middle daughter will actually be graduating in June. So the instability of not necessarily knowing how much I’m going to make — that’s definitely something that weighs on you a bit.
MT: Do you think the emergency manager is going to be able to solve Detroit’s fiscal problems?
Cockrel: Not all of them. My take on an EM is that it’s an unfortunate turn of events, it shouldn’t have come to this — I don’t think it had to come to this — but now here we are. So I think we gotta try to make the best of a bad decision, and I think we also have to recognize that there are certain pluses to having someone in city government that has the powers that he has.
I do think that there are certain fixes that Kevyn Orr can potentially execute. Is he going to be able to fix everything? Probably not … there are certain issues involving Detroit’s finances that he can’t fix.
The big part of the reason we are where we are isn’t just because of problems in city government — bad management or other issues — it’s because of trends that have been at play for decades.
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