The boys in the back room had a good laugh in May when, at the last minute, Sharon McPhail jumped into the race for Wayne County prosecutor.
Hadn’t she learned her lesson? OK, she gave them a scare in 1993, when she ran a stronger-than-expected campaign for mayor. But two years ago, Mayor Dennis Archer and county boss Ed McNamara teamed up to beat her brains out in the county executive race. That was supposed to finish her off.
Well, OK, fine, they purred when she announced. So Sharon wants to humiliate herself further and divide the black vote. Cool. They could live with that ... Or maybe not.
Guess what? The polls show her with a lead of anywhere from 2-1 to almost 4-1, and while opponents say that’s just early “name recognition,” it may be later than they think. This election is Aug. 8, not November.
Excuse me, I asked her, but why aren’t you dead yet? “I’m sort of like a cockroach, you know, who survives anything and just keeps coming,” she said with a laugh. So now it is time to take a serious look at McPhail and her candidacy. What could surprise a lot of people is that this might not only be a race she can win — it is one for which she is supremely qualified.
I haven’t always agreed with her and, frankly, some of the time she has been her own worst enemy, especially with the media. During past campaigns it sometimes seemed she was too thin-skinned, was able to dish it out far better than she could take it, and that she had a different standard for her behavior than for others. But it is also true that the press had a double standard in her mayoral campaign. They had decided on Dennis and weren’t about to let anything get in the way.
Lost in the shuffle, too, was that she is capable, very smart, and has offered thoughtful plans and intelligent policy alternatives that have been almost totally ignored. This time, for example, she has presented what seems to me a sensible plan for reorganizing and streamlining the way the prosecutor’s office functions. Additionally, her attitude toward law enforcement in general seems enlightened and farsighted. She would push for harsher penalties for drunk driving and doesn’t think much of the current fad of charging children as adults.
The prosecutor’s office is also something she knows about. She worked there for eight years, ending up as a division chief. Nor does she harbor any bitterness toward the folks now running it, the retiring John O’Hair and George Ward, O’Hair’s longtime deputy and preferred successor. “Should I win, I hope he will stay as chief assistant,” she said.
So who else is there? Of the five candidates for the job, only McPhail and Ward deserve serious consideration. Jennipher Colthirst is a name on paper. State Sen. Virgil Smith, a term-limited Detroiter, has run unsuccessfully twice, without ever offering much reason why. He has no prosecutorial experience, nor is it clear he is up to the job. However, he has the mayor’s backing as a payoff for supporting the takeover of the public schools last year, which gives his campaign an uncanny symmetry. Eight years ago, he first ran for prosecutor so that Mayor Coleman Young could use him as a club to try to beat O’Hair for helping to send Young’s crooked police chief to jail. Sweet. Speaking of the devil, it would be better to dig up Ol’ Coleman and put him in the office than to elect Mike Duggan, the de facto county executive known as “McNamara’s pit bull,” whose reputation for arrogance is matched only by his lack of experience in the prosecutor’s office and the hearty cheeriness with which he accepts (some say, shakes down) contributions from county contractors. “What is our concept of public service? A public trust or the spoils system?” George Ward said after learning the county contract for limousine service had been given to a company in which Duggan has a financial interest. Apart from that, Duggan has had a finger in every deal that has gone down for years. Do you really expect, as prosecutor, Duggan would be willing to look into whether funds were misspent and laws violated during the great boom of the 1990s? Essentially, we’d be asking him to investigate himself. Right.
That leaves only George and Sharon. “If you can’t vote for me, vote for George Ward. He’d do a good job,” says a maturing McPhail. Ward, 59, has been there for 14 years and echoes all of O’Hair’s fine qualities — moderation, integrity, absolute fairness and decency.
Yet, the office more than likely needs some shaking up and cyber-modernizing after 17 years of O’Hair’s comfortable-old-shoe administration. Sharon McPhail could do that. But wouldn’t she be more interested in settling old scores? She shook her head no. “My grandmother used to say that acid eats its own container first,” she said. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to let her show what she can do.
Naturally, Archer and McNamara wouldn’t be too pleased. But, hey. There is something to be said for not letting the same gang run the whole waterfront. Plato, another Greek guy without a casino, knew that somebody ought to be watching our guardians. Maybe even if, from time to time, it gives them fits.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]