Charting a future

Restarting Detroit from scratch — with a new attitude

Sheila Cockrel paused thoughtfully over dinner last week, considering something she's realized in recent years.

"Today's young adults — those in their 20s and 30s and 40s — have grown up with a Detroit in decline. They've never known anything else." That's sad, especially to someone old enough to remember the excitement of shopping downtown.

Yet she finds something positive about that, when she is talking to the young adults she teaches and mentors at Wayne State University, or the people she meets during the CitizenDetroit community workshops she runs for WSU's Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society program. Most young Detroiters, she finds, aren't tied to the battles of the past. 

"They want things fixed. They want a city that is run properly," with streetlights that work and cops that come when you are being robbed or murdered. They aren't especially interested in fighting old battles and even less in being part of the "victim culture." Detroiters want a city that works. But how do they get there?

The former councilwoman and I talked at length about the city we were born in, just a few hours after a circuit judge finally ended Corporation Counsel Krystal Crittendon's kamikaze charge, tossing out her misguided challenge to the consent agreement.

Had that not happened, the city would have swiftly run out of money, its politicians committing suicide by emergency manager.

But, once the judge ruled, things seemed to come together amazingly quickly. Not only was a program manager finally hired, but the city council finally and swiftly (!) named their two appointees to the financial advisory board, and appeared willing to work. Except, that is, for the three irreconcilables, Kwame Kenyatta, JoAnn Watson and Brenda Jones, who went off to sulk, or maybe wait for Lyndon Johnson to come back and give them federal billions to spend.

But assuming — and this is a big assumption — that everybody continues to work together — how can Detroit get out of its hole? Across-the-board slashing may possibly balance this year's budget, but is bound to leave the city even weaker than before.

Nobody knows what to do about the mountain of unfunded future obligations. So I decided to ask Sheila, who probably knows Detroit deeper and more intimately than nearly anyone else. 

Born in Corktown into an Irish family named Murphy in the fall of 1947, she was interested in social justice from the start, organizing her fellow girls in Catholic school. She defied her parents at age 19, when she went out to help those injured in what history called the Detroit riot. Eventually, she worked for and later married the great black radical firebrand Ken Cockrel (father of the present councilman), an attorney who served one term on council and left because he was frustrated over how little he could do.

Sheila worked successfully to have her husband's law partner Justin Ravitz elected to the old Recorder's Court bench. Meanwhile, her husband grew steadily more popular. Polls eventually showed that he could have been elected mayor whether or not Coleman Young ran again.

Ken Cockrel Sr. was thinking about such a run in April 1989, when his aorta suddenly burst, and he died on his kitchen floor. Sheila was a widow with a 3-year-old. She worked for the city, then served four terms on council, eventually chairing the budget committee.

She knew there is a time for fighting the system, a time for fighting for change from within — and a time when the system just doesn't work anymore. Three years ago, Cockrel saw where things were, and decided not to waste more of her life fighting ignorant and possibly unbalanced people. (See Conyers, Monica, et al.)

Now, she's fighting for a new Detroit. There isn't a white person in this state who has done more to prove their colorblindness and willingness to stand with those who struggle. But there is a time for common sense. "Even I know you have to keep your books in order." She doesn't think having an emergency manager means fascism.

"It is a management and accountability tool," she said. Like everyone else, she hopes the consent agreement succeeds. But she's not tremendously optimistic. Those who say they want reform aren't looking deeply enough. Doing across-the-board layoffs by seniority makes little sense in a time of extreme crisis, she told me.

"You have workers bumping into complex jobs in complicated departments they know little or nothing about."

When I said I thought it made no sense to lay off cops, she startled me. "Well, we really don't know if we can. We can't really tell how many police we need till we study what they do," she said.

Firefighters, she added, operated under a series of arcane manning rules that probably made sense in 1890, but may not now.

What those now trying to fix things really need to do is start from scratch. Examine what the city does, what it needs to do, and make the rational, tough and difficult decisions required.

But even if that happens — what about the billions in pension obligations that the city realistically never will be able to pay? "Well, you have to find some way of figuring things out," on what may amount to something of a needs basis, Cockrel said. 

Sheila Cockrel is fully prepared to accept that she, a healthy woman in her mid-60s, may never get what, on paper, she is owed. "But you can't take that away from someone in their 90s," who depends on their city pension for a modest standard of living.

Odds are that her days as an elected official are over. Interestingly, she thinks Mike Duggan, longtime Wayne County fixer and current Detroit Medical Center czar, could be elected mayor, if voters are convinced he is the right man to fix their town.

I'm not sure I agree. But I do know that if I had to choose Detroit's next mayor, I'd be a lot more comfortable voting for her.


The bridge to somewhere: You just had to be happy last week when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Rick Snyder signed the deal to build the New International Trade Crossing. Personally, I would have liked to have been an invisible fly on the wall in Matty Moroun's lair. For years, the old bloated billionaire spider has spent millions and woven webs of deceit to try to prevent this day from happening. But in the end, the good guys won. 

For the sake of realism, however, we should note that they won in large part because every other corporate interest made it clear they want and need a new bridge. Essentially, everybody not on Moroun's payroll is against him on this. Not that this is necessarily over yet.

Moroun is likely to fight, in court and out, by fair means or foul, every step of the way, at least till Jesus, Allah or some correctional institution, calls him home. 

Whether he can stall the new bridge isn't clear. What is clear is that if I were determining next year's Pulitzer Prize for public service, it would be awarded to blogger Joel Thurtell (, who exposed Moroun long before anyone else did.

After a while, a few of us picked up on this and magnified his impact, and eventually, even the Detroit papers, which at first ignored or misrepresented the bridge issue, were forced to come around.

I am convinced that at the very least, Thurtell's gutsy reporting (he had to face at least one shotgun-toting Moroun goon) made this bridge happen years before it otherwise would have. He may be the best and most valuable journalist in Michigan today.

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