Progressive Heroes: Maryann Mahaffey

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

Maryann Mahaffey begins the interview regarding her progressive roots with a challenge: "First, tell me how you define the word progressive."

After a moment’s hesitation, I reply: "It means someone who looks out for the interests of working people instead of corporations, someone passionately concerned about society’s underdogs, someone who fights against discrimination and for inclusion. Someone who works to achieve social justice."

"OK," replies the doyenne of progressive politics in Detroit. "I can accept that."

She doesn’t just accept it. She lives it.

Principled. Compassionate. Unwavering. And damn tough – the defining characteristics of a woman on the front lines of progressive battles for most of her 74 years.

Take the labor dispute at Detroit’s daily newspapers. Other council members have voiced support for the workers over the past four years, but only Mahaffey, who has been on the council more than 25 years, has steadfastly backed words with actions. First, she was arrested while protesting early in the strike. Then, with relentless consistency, she has refused to talk to reporters from the two dailies. Which is at least part of the reason Mahaffey is no longer council president. She has no regrets.

"If you stand for something," she says, "then do it. And if there is a penalty, then pay it. Otherwise, how will people know you’re really serious?"

Politics is the most obvious manifestation of Mahaffey’s progressive spirit, but it isn’t the only one. She came to the council while in the midst of a long, distinguished career as a social worker. And out of that, a social activist: welfare-rights advocate, opponent of the Korean and Vietnam wars, anti-nuclear activist, longtime proponent of African-American voting rights, vocal supporter of gay and lesbian rights, feminist before it was chic – the list goes on.

Mahaffey’s progressive roots stretch back to her Iowa childhood. Family, church, teachers were all influences. But there has always been some inner voice that compelled her.

Mahaffey recalled her work in a World War II internment camp holding Japanese-Americans forced from their homes. A young woman in the camp Mahaffey became friends with asked her, "Will everybody hate us outside?" More than a half century removed from that moment, it still affects her. Mahaffey begins to choke up, overcome with empathy for the pain that girl was feeling.

And that, as much as anything, is why she is our hero.