Squished by the Duggan Machine

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. - Barbara Barefield, Flickr
Barbara Barefield, Flickr
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Mike Duggan has, in most respects, been a superb — and superbly effective — mayor of Detroit. He did get the streetlights on, when other mayors couldn't, or wouldn't do it.

Certain areas of the city are booming. He's made some shrewd and effective deals. He seems financially honest, strong, effective, savvy, and about to wipe the city's precinct floors with the rather hapless Coleman Young II in November.

But he also can be brutally ruthless. And this is the story of one young woman who found that out.

Pamela Sossi was born on Christmas Day, 1983, and grew up in Harper Woods, a suburb just north of the tough east side of Detroit. Her dad was a union electrician for Chrysler; her mom has a small restaurant up in Michigan's thumb.

Something built a fire under Pam early on; she started at Michigan State before finishing at the University of Michigan and getting a law degree from the University of Detroit.

While a student, she was an intern for U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan, the future mayor of Detroit's father. Sossi revered him, but really admired his son.

"I've been a huge fan and supporter of the mayor for over a decade," Sossi says.

She loved Duggan's style when he was running the Detroit Medical Center. Then, four years ago, she was ecstatic when he managed to win the mayoral primary as a write-in candidate. "He's one of the reasons why I decided to do what I did two years ago," she says. "He was a bit of an inspiration, for me, frankly."

In Sossi's eyes, Duggan took on the machine — and won. She was trying to do the same thing, taking on the odious Brian Banks, the two-term state representative from her area, in the Democratic primary last year.

The district includes her own Harper Woods, an adjacent and pretty grim chunk of Detroit, and Grosse Pointe Woods — not the Grosse Pointe where the big money lives.

To her dismay, Duggan backed Banks, though it's not unusual for a mayor to back a friendly incumbent.

Banks, however, stunk to high heaven. He had already been convicted of eight felonies, and the state had to pay nearly $100,000 to defend him, and then settle with, a male staffer who accused him of gross sexual harassment.

Sossi pounded the pavement, and got known. Last August, she lost the primary, but made a credible showing, winning the suburbs but losing overall, 45 percent to 36 percent.

Banks was re-elected; the district is so Democratic Abe Lincoln wouldn't stand a chance. His final term lasted less than a month — four new felony charges surfaced, and a deal was made for him to quit the legislature to avoid the slammer.

Pam Sossi felt it was her time — and a lot of other people did too. Both The Detroit News and Free Press endorsed her.

But Mike Duggan did not.

He threw his support behind a previously unknown former assistant Wayne County prosecutor, Tenisha Yancey.

The 41-year-old Yancey is also a convicted felon, though unlike Banks, she seems to have turned her life around after a string of felony and misdemeanor violations in her late teens.

To be sure, Duggan wasn't her only supporter. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy backed Yancey, as did Sheriff Benny Napoleon, and the United Automobile Workers union. In fact, she ended up raising more money than her rival.

Still, Sossi says, "There's no way that Ms. Yancey could have built the name recognition to win the race in such a short period of time had the mayor not gotten so heavily involved.

"He made robocalls non-stop for her, actively campaigned for her in public, and negatively campaigned against me. He even knocked doors for her."

On Aug. 8, Sossi swept the district outside Detroit. But in the city, she trailed not only Yancey, but three other obscure candidates.

The final, unofficial count: Yancey, 2,215 ; Sossi, 2,017.

Duggan had intervened to defeat Pamela Sossi. The main reason seems to have been Sossi's failure to support the mayor's push for "D-insurance," his controversial plan to get the legislature to change the laws to allow some form of coverage that would allow reduced auto insurance rates for Detroiters.

The mayor was blunt. Asked why he got involved, he said there were two reasons: "I am very impressed with the way Tenisha Yancey turned her life around and became an accomplished prosecutor, and she is committed to supporting my initiative to reduce car insurance rates for Detroiters, whereas Pam Sossi was in the pocket of the medical providers and unscrupulous attorneys who are ripping off our residents."

To be sure, Detroiters are paying the highest car insurance rates in the state. Sossi knows they are bad, and that backing the mayor on this would have been the politically easy thing to do. But she has a problem with it intellectually.

She thinks "creating a subset of no-fault" is not the correct solution, and sets a dangerous precedent. "The courts should address this issue, not the legislature," she says.

Your columnist isn't sure which view is right. But consider this: Yancey's campaign distributed a flyer from Brian Banks endorsing her — and bragging that Banks was very proud of opposing Duggan's D-insurance plan!

There's a clear hint that Yancey would oppose it too. You have to wonder what is really going on.

There's a theory in some circles that Duggan believes black folks will vote for one white local official — as long as they don't feel he's trying to restore white political domination.

Could the mayor have felt backing a young white woman to represent the east side of Detroit was politically risky?

I don't know. But if I were Pam Sossi, this might be enough to make me a tiny bit cynical about politics in Detroit.

Conyers: A padded payroll?

As I write this, the Office of Congressional Ethics is continuing to look into the activities of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, "because there is substantial reason to believe" that he provided a member of his congressional staff with "compensation that was not commensurate with the work she performed."

Put in plain English, Cynthia Martin, Conyers' chief of staff, was fired a year ago — but continued to collect her monthly salary for months, or more than $13,000.

Well, of course she did (the official excuse is that this is legitimate severance, etc.) Incidentally, the ethics office reported that Conyers refused to cooperate with its investigation. This is, sadly, a reflection of the kind of shenanigans that have gone on in Conyers' office for years.

Any reporter who has covered him knows. But nobody has ever really gone after Conyers, perhaps because he is an icon, or they fear being accused of racism.

We do know that staffers have had to serve as virtual babysitters. One, Deanna Maher, said she was told to move into the Conyers' home and take care of his children back in 1998 while his wife Monica attended law school.

That got him barely a slap on his wrist a decade ago and an "admission" of a "lack of clarity" in staff assignments.

When staffers failed to collect enough valid signatures to get him on the ballot in 2014, a sympathetic federal judge ordered Conyers on anyway. There are other things, too.

Lots of things. He's dodged many bullets. But at some point, enough has to be enough. John Conyers will be almost 90 when his current term ends. Nature has its way with all of us. The trick is to know when to go, while some dignity yet remains.

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.