Chilling new leadership in Detroit City Council

Jan 7, 2014

Most people in Detroit yesterday were understandably focused on the bone-chilling cold, on attempts to get the streets cleared of snow, and to get those without heat to warming centers.

But something else happened that sent a chill through those trying to manage the city to a brighter future. The newly elected City Council chose its two top leaders yesterday.

I can tell you that virtually without exception, those trying to remake the city counted on Saunteel Jenkins being elected City Council president. Saunteel knows politics and people.  She came from the mean streets, where her 14-year-old brother was shot dead by someone stealing his jacket.

But Jenkins earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, and then spent six years learning about politics and government as a top aide to the legendary Maryann Mahaffey. She opposed the appointment of an emergency manager, but has tried to work with him for the best outcome for all Detroiters.

Six months ago, Jenkins was chosen as City Council president, after the disgraceful departure of Charles Pugh. She has performed admirably, working to bring new jobs and new tax revenue to the city. She can talk to corporate leaders and troubled teens.

But yesterday, as temperatures plunged below zero, the newly elected council threw a chill into reform by rejecting Saunteel Jenkins, and instead electing Brenda Jones.

Jones, a former union local leader beginning her third council term, became famous for fighting every attempt at reform. She opposed not only an emergency manager but the consent agreement designed to prevent one. Jones stubbornly opposed having the state fix up Belle Isle, Detroit’s neglected island park.

She doesn’t appear to accept the seriousness of the city’s financial situation, and has refused, as far as I can tell, to even give Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr a fair hearing.

If that weren’t bad enough, the council then chose George Cushingberry as president pro tem. Cushingberry is scarcely a fresh face; he first served in the Legislature nearly 40 years ago. He is part of the old Detroit political culture, distinguishing himself mainly by some ideas which are frankly bizarre.

Twenty years ago, during a brief run for mayor that went nowhere, he told me he thought the city ought to make money by breeding the animals in the Detroit Zoo and selling their eggs and offspring. This year, running for City Council, he said he thought the city’s future might be in massive medical marijuana production.

He added that Detroit might be able to, quote, “use hemp cloth to make alternative (automobile) seating and other sorts of things that can make us even more competitive worldwide.”         

After Jones and Cushingberry were elected, new mayor Mike Duggan said he looked forward to working with them. That’s hard to believe. For one thing, this is not likely to inspire the emergency manager to relinquish much power to the elected leadership.

For another, Duggan knows even after Kevyn Orr is gone, he is going to have to submit hard and painful city budgets to a council now headed by a woman who has been an obstructionist every step of the way. Nothing seems to come easy to Detroit. What happened at council yesterday may make things that much harder.