Council: Taking the pledge

Jul 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

There is a perfect solution to this uproar over the Pledge of Allegiance, elegant in its simplicity. We should change the words to “One nation, under Dog.” This would satisfy almost everyone. Poor liberals nostalgic for the days when America was a refuge for huddled masses yearning to breathe free would love it. So would gonzo headbangers with a taste for irony.

But most of all, it would resonate with our court-selected president, who, as Vanity Fair revealed during the campaign, is dyslexic. Yep, old George has been a big follower of Dog ever since he quit drinking and snorting. And where he goes, the hard right is sure to follow.

Regrettably, however, my brilliance seems apt to be ignored. Incidentally, if you were too busy lathering on Coppertone last week to notice, two brave federal judges ruled that the 1954 decision to drag God into the pledge was unconstitutional. It was about time too. Where poor God’s lawyer has been all these years is a mystery.

But the Republicans and other yahoos went nuts at the thought of letting Jehovah off the hook. After the ruling that “under God” was unconstitutional, the howling of the hypocrites could be heard from Lincoln Park to Long Beach. Congressmen left their lobbyists, mistresses and even put down their drinks to rush to the Capitol and defiantly bray the pledge, avec le sous-dieu.

And so it now seems certain that 1) Ted Goodwin, the federal judge who wrote that courageous opinion, ought to stay away from gun and knife shows all month; and 2) some chucklehead in Congress will now attempt to amend the Constitution to allow the pledge to implicate the deity in our national problems. Come to think of it, while that would be wrong, it might not be all bad ... think of all the other mischief that might prevent the right from doing.

Anyway. Moving from the ridiculous to something that might actually affect our lives, it is time to talk about the bill that would take Detroit’s current, nine-member City Council, all of whom are now elected citywide, and instead elect them all by separate districts.

I have been arguing for years that the way in which council members are elected doesn’t work and has to be changed. Voters can’t possibly learn enough about the qualifications of a huge pool of council candidates to make nine intelligent choices. So they naturally end up re-electing incumbents or familiar names, even if they are familiar for screwing up.

What that has meant is that last year, for example, Alonzo Bates, best known for disgracing the old Detroit school board, got elected. So did Barbara-Rose Collins, whose main claim to fame is that she was the biggest failure as a U.S. representative that Detroit can remember. Kay Everett, who often wears funny hats and spouts gibberish, keeps getting re-elected.

Meanwhile, intelligent, principled, class acts such as Felix Sharpe, Hansen Clarke and Ted Wallace have been defeated, mostly because, while respected, they aren’t known citywide.

Now, voters have a chance to change that, if they vote yes on this bill, which will be on the Aug. 6 primary ballot.

So is this bill a good thing? Should it be passed?

Not on your life.

Whatever is wrong with the present system would be made worse by this bill — and the process by which it came to be on the ballot stinks. The citizens of Detroit and their elected representatives had nothing to do with it. The state Legislature arrogantly rammed this bill onto the primary ballot in an improper and unnecessary usurpation of power.

Council President Maryann Mahaffey, who has more smarts and integrity than the entire Legislature on steroids, notes that the bill was so hurriedly and sloppily put together that it contains fatal flaws. It fails, for example, to indicate how a council president would be chosen.

What it does do is give the mayor vast new powers. The mayor would control drawing of the boundaries for the new districts, with no apparent oversight. The mayor would be the only elected official who represented all the voters. Everyone else could be easily marginalized or bought off.

The fact is, council does need district representation. But it needs some at-large members too, to see the whole picture.

Sharon McPhail says the beauty of the at-large system is that if one council member doesn’t take up your cause, there are eight more to try. That’s true. But it also means you’re out of luck if nobody sees any citywide political benefit from helping you with your little problem. My suggestion: Elect council members from five districts of roughly 200,000 people each, plus four at-large members. That might work to make sure that everybody was represented — including the citywide vision.

For now, voters should agree to turn thumbs down on Lansing’s fishy initiative. But council should be pledging to give the people a reasonable alternative to vote on at the next election. Then we might get somewhere.

Incidentally, for various reasons, Kwame Kilpatrick’s own high-handedness among them, council is virtually united against him. Each side needs to take a deep breath, and the mayor needs to offer an olive branch.

Coda: Bill Dufty, best known as Billie Holiday’s alter ego and author of Lady Sings the Blues, died in his home in Birmingham last Friday after an amazing life that included a career as an early UAW activist, another as an investigative reporter, marriage to Gloria Swanson (!) and being a leader of the macrobiotic food revolution. Two weeks before he died, he asked me what I thought of the fawning, uncritical coverage the media was giving the Shrub’s imaginary war. “God! Aren’t there any real journalists any more?” he asked me. There is one fewer now.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]