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
I did have discussions with him about this when I met with him last week, and I know that it’s something he’s already begun thinking about. But do I know exactly what the answer is? I’d have to say no, and ultimately it’s probably a question best directed to him.
MT: During your time as mayor, what did you learn about the job that you didn’t know?
Cockrel: In terms of the technical aspects, I would say there’s nothing I learned that I didn’t know — just from having been in city government awhile, I had a pretty good handle, even though I had never [been the executive].
From a personal standpoint, in terms of actually being there, I’d say the one thing I learned about it that I wasn’t quite ready for — and I adapted but it still was kind of rough — is that being mayor is the kind of job where you can walk into your office and you don’t really know what the hell you’re going to wind up doing with that day.
You might have your calendar all mapped out and you think, “OK, I know what I’m going to be doing today,” but then something happens … and you have to totally recalibrate. … So that’s the thing I think that maybe threw me for the loop — the extent to which things change just on an hour-by-hour basis, based on factors that are completely beyond your control. That’s the one thing that … is a butt kicker.
MT: During your time on council there were some very tumultuous events the city went through: the mayor being forced from office; fellow councilmembers going to prison for taking bribes.
Cockrel: When things like that happen, it tends to take the entire body, it tends to [taint] the entire institution; there’s an old saying that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.
But unfortunately for the city of Detroit, from a public perception standpoint, it does. And that has really been a big part of the problem with City Council.
All it takes is just one person to do something incredibly stupid — or incredibly corrupt — and get caught, and now it becomes what is in the media.
And it’s hard to counter that because, no matter how hardworking I may be, no matter how many good pieces of legislation I may write and get through City Council, the reality is that stuff is never going to get as much press as one of my colleagues having ghost employees — and then getting investigated and ultimately indicted by the federal government for doing that.
I’m not bellyaching about that, and a lot of that, unfortunately, is kind of just the nature of the news business.
MT: Having started your career as a journalist, did your view of journalism change at all as a result of being on the other side of it?
Cockrel: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that it really has. I’ve still got a lot of respect for journalism as a profession and for journalists. The only thing I would say is I would encourage reporters to not go for the easy story. I think all too often you get many reporters who go for the easy story as opposed to really digging and investigating.
MT: Shifting gears, did you ever feel a sense of burden being the son of a man so highly admired by many Detroiters?
Cockrel: I would say I felt maybe burdened by it earlier in my career than I do now. Early on in my career, particularly when I got on City Council, I would sometimes hear stuff on the streets like, “He’s not like his daddy.”
People would expect me to come in and make a real fiery speech or throw a chair across a table. But the reality is that approach doesn’t always get it done anymore, and I think a lot of folks have trouble understanding that. You can’t necessarily fix a 2013 problem with a 1968 approach — and I think a lot of folks in this community, at a grassroots organizing level, don’t get that.
Having said that, I will never undervalue the importance of picking up a picket sign occasionally or organizing a protest rally or a march. I think there’s always going to be be an important place and a role for that, but I also recognize it’s a different world and you have to approach certain issues and problems differently.
MT: Did you say, “I’m not my dad” and people just had to accept that?
Cockrel: [Early on] it was more of a struggle, more of a burden. Then it got to a point where I just didn’t think about it anymore. I don’t really think about it at all now. I look at it this way: I think that if my dad were still alive, and still out there making moves, I don’t know that he would necessarily be using the same approach that he used in 1969 or 1970, because if you don’t change with the times and adapt, then you wind up a dinosaur in a museum, and who wants to be that?
MT: During council’s vote to approve the contract with the Miller Canfield law firm, which you approved, someone in the audience shouted, “Your dad would be ashamed of you.”
Cockrel: Yeah, I’ve heard that before: “Oh, your daddy would be rolling over in his grave,” and I’ve heard that before, but like I said, it’s a different world. It’s 2013.
MT: Monica Conyers famously called you “Shrek,” what’s your secret for keeping your cool?
Cockrel: I have lost it in a couple sessions. It’s been very few, but there have been a couple meetings. I remember there was one meeting where I really did lose it, because one of my colleagues said something that pissed me off — and I went off … I guess, in this day and age, we’re all maybe — at best — two or three steps removed from a YouTube disaster; I guess that’s always in the back of my head. You sort of try to play it cool, because there’s a risk that the thing goes viral — and Daniel Tosh is making fun of you on the latest episode of Tosh.0; that Shrek thing did go viral, and I have seen that, actually.
MT: You seem to have a sense of dignity about the job.
Cockrel: You have to think about the institution. What you do reflects not just on you as an individual — it reflects on the institution. When you asked me that question about serving on council when some of these other things were going on, and [whether] it makes your job harder — all it takes is one to do something, and then the whole council ends up getting painted with that brush.
MT: How would you describe the current relationship between the city and the suburbs?
Cockrel: That’s a good question. I think we’re still not where we need to be; this is still a very, very racially polarized region.
I remember seeing some statistical data a number of years ago that showed Chicago was considered the most heavily polarized region in the country; but I think we were running pretty close behind.
I don’t know where we are now, and I generally think that it’s still very racially polarized. I mean the reality is there are far too many people who look at Detroit as a place to go for Tiger games or to see an opera or a Red Wings game, but don’t want to live here.
I’d like to see Detroit become a more diverse city and I think we’re ways away from that. I’d like to see us become an international city; I know some people look at that and say, “Well Detroit is 80 percent African-American, aren’t you proud of your own people?”
Yeah, absolutely I am. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world — I go to cities like Toronto, Geneva, New York, Paris — all cities that we would think of being very, very cool cities. And, if you look at one of the things that are generally cited as one of the reasons why they’re cool, it’s because they’re diverse.
You know, not just economically but culturally. I would like to see that for this city. I’d like to see us become an international city.
MT: Can it be seen as a situation where some people with vested interests don’t want to see their political power diminished by becoming a more diverse city?
Cockrel: Well, the way I look at it, the most important color in Detroit right now is green. We need more green in this city; we need more money in this city.
I think anything we can do to encourage that, regardless of who’s coming in to live or who’s coming in to invest, I think that’s what we need to be about the business of doing. I think that’s more important.
MT: Tomorrow is another day, so what’s next?
Cockrel: I have a couple things that I’m looking at … My plan is to basically do two things for the rest of this year: one is finish up this term, but the other is — on a personal level — look at the things I’ve been offered and look at some of the things I’ve been exploring and trying to put together and then solidify them by the end of the year.
Because, come January 1 … I don’t want to be unemployed. So that’s the goal and that’s the game plan.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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