Of Candidates and Collard Greens

Mulenga Harangua, talks Detroit politics, the upcoming election, and urban agriculture

Things have been so out of sorts around here I felt the need to calm down by putting my hands in the dirt and cultivate a little sanity. So I headed over to visit my friend Mulenga Harangua and helped him in the garden.

I have an agreement with him to work the garden in exchange for some of the produce. I’ve been eating salad from the garden all summer — the yellow beets and green beans are starting to come in. Those beets, julienned and lightly steamed, served with a little olive oil and lime juice, are really good.

While we were throwing brush into his compost pile I asked Mulenga, “Who are you voting for in the City Council race?”

“I’m not telling you. If I tell you then you’re going to write it in your column. Now that we’re voting for council by districts, if people know who I’m voting for, then they’ll know what area I live in. I can’t let the man know where I’m at. I’ve been building this cover for years. As a matter of fact, since they know that you know me, I shouldn’t even let you come over here because they could follow you. However, we’ve been friends a long time so I’ll take the chance.”

“But aren’t you registered to vote?” I asked.

“Yep, but that’s under my slave name. Mulenga Harangua is a free man.”

“Well, what do you think that folks should be looking for in their district representatives?”

Mulenga paused a moment and glanced across the two lots he had cleaned up, cleared and tamed. “Well, for one thing, I want somebody who supports urban agriculture. Man, a few years ago I didn’t have anything. I still don’t have much, but now I’m eating regular and have a few dollars in my pocket. Not that I’m about to start buying buildings downtown like Dan Gilbert, but my quality of life has improved.”

“I can see that. You know I talked to Councilman Ken Cockrel the other day and he said it’s going to be an important part of the economic mix going forward. When council passed the Urban Agriculture Ordinance — that made news around the world. This is a big trend and Detroit is a leader in that. But none of the candidates are making a big deal about that.”

“I know,” he said. “Occasionally some of them mention it in passing but nobody is hammering at that as a new way for the city to go. Mostly they talk about the same stuff: crime, education and jobs. I know those are important things, but that’s what everybody talks about and yet nothing substantial ever seems to get done about them.”

“That’s something that Cockrel brought up. He says that when he talks to candidates, he looks for people who have something new to say beyond the cliché generic stuff. He also said that he looks for folks who have true knowledge of the city charter. Sometimes, folks make promises to do things that aren’t really within the powers of a councilperson. Another thing he said is that he tries to get a sense for when they sit down at the table with the other council members, will they be able to work and compromise or are they going to be a bomb thrower. He said that you have to know when to throw a bomb and when you need to try to work something out.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter much what Cockrel thinks,” Mulenga said, wiping his face with a bandana as the sun bore down on us with a heat index above 100 degrees. “He’s not even a candidate now.”

“Yeah, but he’s the closest thing we have to a political elder statesman in the city,” I responded. He’s been a county commissioner, city councilman and mayor. There’s no one else in city government that has held elective office as long as Cockrel.”

“That might mean he’s part of the problem.”

“Well, that’s true. But we need some folks in government who know their way around city hall, otherwise the lobbyists run everything. And there are plenty of other contributors to Detroit’s problems, from a state revenue default to urban flight to a major recession to a string of mayors who can’t get off the dime. One mayor with the initials KK probably did more to harm the city than the KKK could if it tried.”

“Ooh, that was cold, man.”

“I know it was, but I couldn’t help it. Let’s move on. Take education for example. There are plenty of folks demonizing the education system but none of them are proposing anything particularly useful. Even these charter schools aren’t the answer. In most cases they aren’t proving to be any better than the public schools. When you look at some of the best education systems in the world, Finland’s for example, nobody here is proposing anything near what they do there. All they want to do here is cut back and come down hard on teachers and students instead of investing in our future. They claim we can’t afford to do it that way. We can’t afford not to. Most of what is going on in education is about power politics and who is getting paid. Much of the problems around education are due to poverty, but no one is talking about that. They’re just about punishing the victims of poverty. I want to hear some candidates talking about that.”

“Keep on preaching, brother.”

“All of the candidates say they want to do something about crime, but how are they going to do it?”

“I was reading some mayoral campaign literature the other day. It said the candidate was going to use proven law enforcement methods to reduce crime.”

“Well, what are those methods?” I asked. “I want to know how they are going to do it. Let’s have that conversation. Can we find a police chief who is more concerned about public safety than his lover? And if we have a good police chief, can we keep that individual instead of every new mayor picking a new chief?” I was getting worked up as we walked over to the rows of greens to pick weeds.

“So who are your picks to win the mayoral primary?”

“That’s easy. It’s Benny Napoleon and Mike Duggan, has been from the start. I don’t know that they are the best two but it’s a name-recognition game and nobody else has done anything to stand out from the crowd.”

“Who are you backing in your district?”

“I live in District 2. I know who I’m voting for, but I’m going to be coy like you. Let the people pick their two finalists. Then I’ll have plenty of pointed questions to ask. ” I gazed around the garden. “Do you have any more of those beets?”

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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