Split decision

Apr 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

To understand the implications of the upcoming election to fill a seat on the Detroit City Council, it is first necessary to come to grips with a situation some on that body won’t even admit exists.

This council is divided into two factions that formed almost from the moment three new members took office in January 2002.

“There’s definitely some truth to that, unfortunately,” says Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr., adding that the divisions can be fluid.

Just don’t expect everyone on the council to publicly admit the obvious.

In interviews for this article, Councilman Lonnie Bates refused to confirm or deny the existence of factions. “I’m not going to refute it,” says Bates. “But I’m not going to confirm it either.” His colleague Kay Everett sidestepped the issue before dashing away. Even Council President Maryann Mahaffey begged off from talking about it in detail.

But denying or ignoring or refusing to speak on the record about the council division doesn’t make the split go away. Nor does it erase the fact that the divided council will be profoundly affected by the upcoming special election to fill the seat left vacant when Brenda Scott died last September.

The divisions aren’t carved in stone, but by and large the two factions consist of Mahaffey, Sharon McPhail, Barbara-Rose Collins and Ken Cockrel Jr. on one side, and Sheila Cockrel, Kay Everett, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi and Bates on the other. (Scott was aligned with the latter group.)

The even division is reflected in endorsements of the two candidates facing each other in the April 29 runoff special election.

Mahaffey and company are backing JoAnn Watson. Sheila Cockrel and the others sitting on her side of the fence have thrown their support to Gil Hill.

Supporters of Watson cite her record as an “activist” as the reason they’ve endorsed her. Currently the public liaison officer for U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and a talk show host on radio station WHPR-FM, Watson has previously served as executive director of the Detroit Downtown YWCA and the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

“JoAnn is an activist,” explains Mahaffey. “She has a long history of working on a variety of issues, from predatory lending and education and human rights work to health care and insurance for poor people and the under-insured.”

Adds Ken Cockrel: “I think JoAnn brings an activist mind-set that the council needs. There’s a certain school of thought that the council is a legislative body whose job it is to just vote yes or no on what the mayor brings to us.”

Cockrel and his allies, however, see the council’s job as being more “proactive,” in that it needs to create and push its own plans of action “instead of just reacting to the mayor’s agenda.”

Members of the council backing Hill, on the other hand, point to his “experience” as the reason he won their endorsements. A former Detroit Police Department division commander and 11-year council member, Hill stepped down as council president in an unsuccessful bid to win the mayor’s job.

“I think Gil has the experience and the vision to return to the council,” says Sheila Cockrel. “I think he will be a stabilizing voice. He has a leadership style that is inclusive and prefers team-building. I think those are qualities the council could certainly use.”

“It’s not a training session,” says Everett, emphasizing the need for experience on the council at a time when the city is looking to cut as much as $100 million from its budget. She adds that Hill is largely supportive of Kilpatrick’s programs. Hill “is easy to work with and he understands the issues.”

Reading between the lines, the implication is that one camp puts more emphasis on the “check and balance” role of the council.

“We respect the office, but we don’t see it as our job to run around being buddies with the mayor,” says McPhail.

Sheila Cockrel, however, insists that although it may be tempting to ascribe shorthand definitions to the council factions, trying to explain the division in terms of willingness to support the mayor is “too simple.”

“It’s far more complicated than that,” she says.

Cockrel also counsels against placing too much emphasis on the rift. The split surfaced last year as the council designed a committee structure, for instance. But Cockrel notes that it doesn’t come into play on the vast majority of issues decided by the council, adding “whatever tensions are built into this council, we are able to transcend.”

Given the personalities and politics at play on the council, it’s unlikely that the situation is going to be transformed into a lovefest anytime soon. Which, according to Ken Cockrel Jr., makes this upcoming election particularly important.

“This is a critical race,” he explains. “The person who is elected will really help shape the direction the council takes. As the ninth person, they will be in a position to break any ties.”

As for the candidates themselves, they are downplaying any talk of a divided council and the role they will play on it.

“I’m not looking for special deals for special people,” says Watson. “I would be a council member who won’t sell out. I’m not in the hip pocket of anybody.”

Hill, who says that among the many people who urged him to jump into the race was Mayor Kilpatrick, promises that if elected he’s going to “work with everybody up there” on the council. He, too, cautions against making too much of any rift.

“There’s been several important measures passed, so there must not be any set four-against-four division,” he observes. “Maybe it’s just a perception. But, as you know, in politics, perception can become reality.”

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]