Sharon McPhail’s Detroit

If Sharon McPhail becomes Detroit’s next mayor, she promises that within four years she’ll slash property taxes by at least 20 mills, or by almost a third; eliminate half of the crime in the city within one year (!) and guarantee paid college tuition for anyone who graduates from a Detroit high school.

Does all that sound intriguing? Damn right. Is the money there to make any or all of that happen? That seems much more doubtful, although McPhail insists that the figures will add up, especially since she expects her policies to soon cause a population boom as people move back into the city.

What is clear is that her ideas deserve closer examination — at least as much as the issue of what kind of car the current mayor wanted the taxpayers to lease for his wife. Yet her ideas aren’t getting the careful scrutiny they deserve.

With less than a month before perhaps the most important primary election in Detroit history, Sharon McPhail’s campaign for mayor this time reminds me of her 1993 run in one telling aspect. Now as then, she’s offering a number of intriguing policy prescriptions for getting Detroit out of its hole.

And once again — even with the days ticking by — the media are paying little attention. They haven’t heavily scrutinized the platforms of the other candidates either, but there’s still plenty of time to do so.

Yet because in many ways McPhail’s proposals are the most innovative, and because the polls indicate she has a good chance to at least make the runoff, it’s puzzling that the media aren’t discussing them.

Naturally, there are a lot of reasons for that, one of which, unfortunately, is Sharon McPhail herself, who has an unfortunate habit of going “off-message,” as the spin doctors say, and going negative. During last week’s debate on Fox 2, she briefly mentioned a couple of her ideas, but spent far more time attacking Freman Hendrix, who was deputy mayor under Dennis Archer.

Despite the fact that Hendrix has never actually been mayor, she seemed to blame him for everything that’s gone wrong since the Mexican War, and especially for the state takeover of the Detroit Public Schools. After having savaged the current mayor for four years, she seemed gentle, even patronizing, toward Kwame Kilpatrick, actually patting his hand warmly on one occasion.

Why she behaved that way is no mystery; she would dearly love to be in a runoff against Kilpatrick. She correctly sees him as badly damaged goods, vulnerable on a dozen fronts, from the budget to the bodyguards.

What she may not realize is that most of the other contenders would prefer to get into a runoff against Sharon McPhail. “You don’t have to do anything — just wait for her to destroy herself. She always does,” someone close to one of her major rivals told me, and that was echoed by plenty of others.

Sadly, they may be right. I have little doubt that if you put all the candidates in a room and gave them a thorough IQ test, or a graduate school entrance exam, Sharon McPhail would come out with the highest score.

Unfortunately, she’d also probably complain that one of the other candidates picked his nose, or that another candidate’s relative was in a secret partnership with the company that made up the test, or something like that. She seems to have a deep-seated bitterness that she can’t get beyond. One thinks of Bob Dole, who once, instead of congratulating a rival for a close primary victory, snapped, “Stop lying about my record,” on national TV.

The tragedy is that many of her ideas are very good and she should have a lot to offer. Twelve years ago, when McPhail first ran for mayor, the wonder was not that she lost, but that she did so well. Virtually invisible to the public when the race began, she easily beat out the much better known Art Blackwell to get into the runoff against Archer.

In the fall, the media — particularly Detroit’s newspapers — acted virtually as a subsidiary of Dennis Archer’s campaign, and there was a torrent of coverage of McPhail’s supposed “character flaws.” To be sure, she didn’t exactly help herself on a number of occasions, and despite assistance from Coleman Young, her underfunded campaign was still, in many ways, amateur hour.

Still, she made up a lot of lost ground. She trailed in the primary, 51-26 percent, and in November cut that margin to 56-43. Yet she was bitter, and to this day thinks there was fraud, at least in counting the absentee ballots.

Five years later she lost by a landslide in a humiliating race for Wayne County executive; she even trailed among black voters. Next it was a closer loss to Mike Duggan for Wayne County prosecutor before finally winning (by a solid margin) a seat on Detroit City Council four years ago.

This may be her last hurrah if she doesn’t win — which in a way would be a tragedy, because she does have an excellent mind, and genuinely and compassionately cares about this city and its people. Most politicians I’ve known are generally better people in public than in private life.

Sharon McPhail is something of the reverse. She’s done all sorts of things for poor children that she’s never sought any credit for, taking some of them into her home. She seems to have been a superb mother to her daughters.

Lots of people have told me stories about private little kindnesses that she has done them without expecting anything in return. “I am Detroit,” she said to me recently, and I knew what she meant. Though she was born in Massachusetts in deep urban poverty, she made something of herself.

Nor has she forgotten where she came from, something that couldn’t be said about Archer. Yet last week, when I sat down to talk with her about her proposals, almost the first thing out of her mouth was whether I had heard that another candidate’s mistress had filed a restraining order against him.

Sharon, please: Drop that garbage. We don’t have the luxury of wallowing in that now. You have some of the best ideas out there; show us how they might work. You seem to understand better than any of the others that the city needs more people; tell us how you can bring them in. Politics is a rough trade, someone once said, but one capable of honor. We badly need more of it today.


So who won last week’s debate? Normally it’s hard to say that anyone has “won” any televised candidate cattle show, since everyone tends to be as cautious as sumo wrestlers on a slippery surface. But I suspect this debate did have a hands-down winner with the public: state Sen. Hansen Clarke, whom most voters may never have seen before.

While the other candidates glowered at each other and muttered about ancient wrongs, Hansen was cheerful, optimistic, upbeat and radiated hope for the future. He was the only one who was in the least bit funny, bringing the house down when he said he wouldn’t need Kwame’s phalanx of bodyguards, because, “I grew up on the East Side; I can take care of myself.” He seemed to promise everybody a two-car garage and a pony, and nothing he said was challenged by any of the others, largely because they regard him as Jiminy Cricket. But don’t be surprised if his poll numbers start climbing.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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