April 25, 2014

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Stir It Up

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Crystal balling

It might seem a little early to cast our attention at the fall election in Detroit. After all there is plenty of drama in Washington, D.C., with the recently completed fiscal cliff negotiations, and the upcoming debt ceiling and gun control fights heating up. Right here in Detroit we’re still wondering if there will be an emergency manager or bankruptcy or both in the near future that will render whoever is elected less significant for the duration of the ordeal.

Political consultant Ron Scott — who is not currently working for any candidate but says he has given advice to several possible candidates for various offices — says, “I think that people are going to run anyway. Their resolve is to maintain as much democratic control of the city as they can. Basically they want a Detroit that is independent and the emergency financial manager law will bring greater resolve to fight for that. For example, many people ran for the school board although they were in court trying to see who will be in control. That’s going to happen in the mayoral race regardless of the emergency financial manager. The enmity to Gov. Snyder is so strong in the city that people will run.”

I’m particularly interested in seeing how our first vote for City Council members by district in nearly a century plays out. Whoever is running will have to file qualifying petitions with the city Department of Elections by noon on May 14. So while it may seem early, anybody who really wants to run has to be putting together an operation right now. Generally there are nearly 150 primary candidates for the nine-seat council, but with the new district system I’m curious how it will impact the number of candidates and the kinds of candidates who decide to run.

As it stands now there will be significant turnover in who is on council, and that’s after a pretty big turnover in the last election. Kwame Kenyatta has already said that he will not run this year, while Brenda Jones has already picked up her packet from the Department of Elections for the next election. I called four council members to ask how the district system is impacting how they expect to run, or not run, their campaigns. The only one who called me back was JoAnn Watson, to say that she had nothing to say on the subject at this time. So I’m curious.

District-wise, a few sitting members would have to face each other if they all run again. Brenda Jones and President Pro Tem Gary Brown both live in the 2nd District on the north end. Saunteel Jenkins and Charles Pugh are both in the 5th District in the central south side of town. Watson and Ken Cockrel Jr. live in the 6th District covering the southwest part of town. James Tate is in the 1st District on the far northwest side with no other sitting council members, as is Andre Spivey in the 4th District covering much of the lower east side. Kenyatta lives in the 4th, although, as I’ve said, he isn’t running. Two districts, the 3rd on the northeast side and the 7th on the west side, have no sitting council members.

“It’s too early to determine whether districts are going to change things,” Scott says. “Incumbents will still have access to large fundraising opportunities. … Detroit voters have fooled me, but the ability to get information out and have name recognition and so forth with districts will have an impact. This time around, a number of the incumbents are not going to run. In those districts where they are not going to run, we will see if money or program will actually decide the race. There will be a lot more popular democracy; there will be a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise think about running that will. That will be both good and bad. We’ll see if voters look at their program and not just their personality. For far too long in Detroit, people have been looking at the personality side and not the program the person is proposing.”

I have a feeling that a lot of people who belong to a large church or community group will consider a run for council. One significant organization could be the base that helps win an election for a newly minted politician. Or one significant issue for a community could catapult someone onto council. I haven’t digested the Detroit Future Strategic Plan; it’s hundreds of pages long and was three years in the making, but there have to be numerous issues for neighborhoods in there that could make or break a nascent politician who wants to champion or oppose how it works.

Or it could be one entity with a lot of money that makes the difference with a possible City Council member.

“I don’t underestimate the framework of corruption,” Scott says. “An organization that has a lot of money can dump it on a candidate.”

In addition to the seven district races, there are two citywide council seats that will be in contention to make things just a little bit more complex. It will take some gumption for candidates who believe they can win a district to decide they want take the chance on winning across the city. That may be one of the things keeping current members of council from tipping their hand as they eye each other to see who is running in their district and who is running citywide. The common idea would be those who got the most votes in the last election, Pugh and Brown, have the political capital for that, although Pugh has declared that he won’t seek a second term on the council. At the same time having garnered the most votes for City Council could embolden a candidate to decide to go for the mayoral office. Political observers have considered Pugh and Brown to have such ambitions. Not to mention Jenkins, who earned the third most votes in 2009. Cockrel was in fourth place, and actually sat in the mayor’s seat for several months replacing Kwame Kilpatrick when Kilpatrick left office before Cockrel lost to Dave Bing. He’s been reported saying he is keeping all options open.

Cockrel’s choice may impact Watson’s decision on whether to run or not. The same goes for Jenkins. Jones hasn’t waited to see what Brown will do; she’s the only incumbent who is openly running for re-election at this point. And we still don’t know who is going to come out of the woodwork from the neighborhoods.

Attorney Arthur Bowman made a first-time run for judge in 36th District Court in 2012. Although he lost the election, he has a sense of what it takes for a newcomer to make a game attempt. “Getting grounded with the community organizations in your district and citywide is very important,” Bowman says. “The citywide groups are important for endorsements. It will take a significant amount of money. I can’t say how much it will cost a candidate to run for City Council, but you are not an incumbent and nobody owes you anything. I’d be terribly surprised if you can run an effective campaign on $20,000. It’s a very expensive and stressful and time-consuming proposition, but what is worth anything that isn’t those things? You have to be everywhere all the time, know everybody and have money to work with, and it’s hard even if you have all those things.”

I guess we’ll see how much money it takes to run in a district. Scott says that it takes about $1 million to run for mayor, and from $200,000 to $500,000 to make a citywide run for council. Things change fast in politics and the potential is here for things to change even faster than usual in our unclear political environment with a consent agreement and possible emergency manager in the wings.

One thing is certain: We’re entering unfamiliar political territory, and there could be a lot of surprises in store for Detroiters this year.

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