Same game

Oct 5, 2005 at 12:00 am

Hamtramck may be emerging from an extreme municipal makeover, but its politics are as ugly as ever.  Maybe not that ugly — but with a hotly contested mayoral race under way and six City Council seats all up for grabs, it’s far from pretty.

Five years ago, when Hamtramck faced a $3 million deficit, then-Gov. John Engler appointed an emergency financial manager to assume control of the city. Louis Schimmel came in ready to swing an ax, no matter how many enemies he made. He made plenty, but even his critics now have to admit that Schimmel did what elected officials could not — put Hamtramck on sound financial footing.

Along with a balanced budget, the city also got a new form of government. In February, voters approved a new City Charter that did away with the strong-mayor format. Now, instead of the mayor, a city manager handles the job of running the city. Hired by the City Council and mayor in July when the new charter took effect, City Manager Donald Crawford appoints and supervises department heads, and oversees a $25 million budget. The mayor is reduced to a sort of glorified city council member — able to vote in some situations and not others — and the council is essentially limited to approving contracts and passing resolutions and ordinances. The council, meanwhile, selects one of its members to be mayor pro tem.

Along with bringing in a professional city manager, the charter change was seen as a way to reduce the infighting in a system that often pitted the mayor against opponents on the City Council.

David Puls, former chair of the Charter Revision Commission, says the old system’s divisiveness paralyzed city government.

But despite the changes, the contest to determine who will be Hamtramck’s top elected official has some of the same old clown-show quality to it. The election will be held Nov. 8.

Mayor Pro Tem Karen Majewski, who is seeking to unseat first-term incumbent Mayor Tom Jankowski, recently filed a police report alleging that Jankowski stole some of her campaign signs. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating.

Jankowski, a local tavern owner who’s running for a second term, is a lightning rod for controversy. Twice within the past year he was accused of punching people in bars. Citing a lack of evidence, the Prosecutor’s Office dropped both cases.

One of those who accused Jankowski of hitting him is Councilman Charles Cirgenski, an ally of Majewski. Cirgenski claimed Jankowski punched him in the face as the two discussed politics in a bar.

All of the allegations, Jankowski says, are the results of Hamtramck’s hardball political culture. If he were a busboy at a restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown, he says, “Those charges would never have been filed. I’m just kind of amazed that I was such a target, being mayor of a small city like Hamtramck.”

More serious are claims by William Hood, a candidate for council who is supporting Jankowski. Hood told the council at a recent meeting that people were shooting guns in front of his house, and that he thought it was politically motivated. He did not, however, file a police report.

Changing city

In the recent past, Hamtramck’s rapid demographic changes have fueled political tensions. Once a predominantly Polish enclave, this city of 24,600 has seen a massive influx of immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere. The 2000 census found that more than 40 percent of the city’s residents were born outside the United States.

The immigrant wave didn’t sit well with some. In 1999 there were allegations of intimidation when voters of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance had their citizenship questioned when they went to vote. In May, the city agreed to pay $150,000 to 15 U.S. citizens born in Bangladesh and Yemen to settle a lawsuit they brought following the incident. Another result of that incident is the monitoring of Hamtramck elections by the U.S. Justice Department to ensure against further intimidation.

The city is also coming off a heated dispute over a mosque that broadcasts the call to prayer over a loudspeaker. The council, under Majewski’s leadership, amended the city’s noise ordinance to allow such broadcasts. An opposing citizens group then had the issue put on the ballot; when that initiative was voted down, it had the effect of reinforcing the council’s stand.

That sort of commitment to diversity, Majewski says, would be one of her strengths as mayor.

Majewski, 50, has a doctorate in American culture from the University of Michigan and curates the Polish book collection at Orchard Lake Schools.

She’s running as part of a slate that includes incumbent council candidates Rob Cedar, Shahab Ahmed and Scott Klein. Cedar is an environmental activist who helped force the closure of a medical waste incinerator in Hamtramck, and Ahmed is a native of Bangladesh who, according to one newspaper report, told the FBI he received e-mailed death threats during the call-to-prayer controversy.

Majewski criticizes Jankowski for not taking a stand on the prayer issue, saying the job of mayor, even in its reduced role, involves more than attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

“There are hard issues,” she says, “and you have to be able to speak to them.”

Jankowski says the amendment to the noise ordinance was a legislative issue that was out of his hands.

“I stayed out of it,” he admits. But, he says, most of the Muslims he knows have said they felt the issue would “hurt them socially and politically. They felt it would offend too many people, and it would be harder for them to assimilate, and they really didn’t care about it.”

Jankowski’s supporters, on the other hand, are critical of Majewski’s involvement in the Solidarity Political Action Committee, and her running as part of a slate of candidates. In total, five members of Majewski’s slate are competing for seats on the six-member City Council.

“In a small town, you need people thinking independently,” says Jankowski supporter Ganelle Dakoske, 30. The way she sees it, Solidarity is playing a role equivalent to that of a political party, and she thinks that has no place in a nonpartisan election.

Council candidate Hood, an African-American who supports Jankowski, calls the Solidarity slate a “silent hypocrisy,” and says the group has done nothing to help blacks in the past.

“They can say they’ve done something,” Hood says, “but they can’t name one thing they’ve done.”

Solidarity did run an African-American candidate for City Council, Ella Singer, but she lost in the primary. Hood says Singer was merely being “used” by the slate.

Despite the turmoil and rancor, there remains hope that the city’s newfound financial stability and change in governmental structure will soon put an end to the kind of politics Hamtramck has grown accustomed to.

“I see this as probably the last nasty election,” Cedar says.

Want to bet a paczki on that?

Joanna Galuszka is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]