In the history of Detroit politics, no one has had a career quite like Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.’s.
At 32, having worked as a journalist (including a stint writing columns for this paper) and then serving on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, the cum laude Wayne State University grad became the youngest person ever elected to the Detroit City Council, in 1997.
But the name zCockrel has long been famous in Detroit. The young councilman’s father, Ken Cockrel Sr., cast a long shadow. A brilliant and flamboyant attorney, the elder Cockrel was a self-described Marxist-Leninist who fought to help Detroit’s African-Americans gain political power in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s — eventually winning his own seat at the council table.
The son turned out to be more moderate than his firebrand father, providing a calm, thoughtful presence on a council often wracked by turmoil. During his tenure, two of Cockrel’s fellow council members were sent to prison for corruption. And in September 2008, as the council’s president, he became interim mayor after Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of perjury, a felony, and was forced to resign from office.
Cockrel tried to hold on to the job, but lost to current Detroit mayor Dave Bing in a special election held in the spring of 2009. He returned to the council, and then won re-election —although failing to capture enough votes to retain the council presidency.
Last year, as the city’s financial situation continued to deteriorate, Cockrel partnered with other council members to support entering into a consent agreement with the state that gave Lansing greater fiduciary control over the city’s finances.
After the state abrogated the consent agreement and appointed an emergency financial manager, Cockrel adopted a cooperative stance instead of fighting the EM’s appointment, saying he wants to help EM Kevyn Orr in his attempts to return the city to solvency. Some have heaped scorn on Cockrel for that decision, but he is unapologetic.
Now 47, Cockrel talked about why he’s leaving the council, what it was like being mayor, how it felt to be called “Shrek” by Monica Conyers, the weight of having a famous father, and what he thinks needs to be done for Detroit to reverse its long downward spiral.
Metro Times: The obvious first question: Why have you decided not to run for council again?
Ken Cockrel Jr.: Well, it’s a combination of different things. If I think back to when I first ran for City Council in 1997 … it was never with the intention that this is going to be what I do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t looking to pull a Maryann Mahaffey or a Clyde Cleveland and spend 20, 30 years on council. And that’s no disrespect to them … but that’s just not where my head was at.
And then, if I think back to about four years ago, when I was in the process of deciding what I wanted to do after that special election in the mayor’s race, when Bing was victorious, I was like, “What do I want to do?” I knew it didn’t make sense to me at that time to run for mayor again, because to turn around and run again I think probably would have been inviting the same result.
So it became a question of, “Do I want to step away now and do something different, or do I want to run again for City Council?” And I chose to run again for City Council because I felt that it was a critical time, and I felt that I had something of value to contribute at that point for the next four years. But it was in my head that, “OK, I’m going to run for council again, but this is probably going to be my last rodeo.”
MT: Losing to Dave Bing in that mayoral race had to hurt.
Cockrel: I have to admit, it was kind of rough at first. I did take it hard because, you know, I love the city of Detroit. I put a lot into the mayor’s job, and I felt that I was making a difference.
What I kind of liken it to … [is] when you get dumped … and this is not to knock Mayor Bing, but I felt that I was the better candidate. So the reaction is kind of like when your girlfriend dumps you, and you’re like, “You dumped me for him?”
It’s one thing when you get dumped for somebody who’s maybe got a little more money, got it together a bit more, you know, just a bit more focused, then you’re like, “OK, I can understand.” But then when you get dumped for somebody that you think is maybe not quite as on the ball as you, then it’s sort of like, “What the hell?” It was kind of that reaction. So it hurt at first.
MT: Did concern that council might be reduced to part-time enter into your decision to leave?
Cockrel: It was a factor — I’m not going to deny that. But, like I said, the biggest factor was that I’ve always believed the goal is to go in here and make a contribution and then move on and do something else. The reality is, I’m not a single guy. I’m married, I have five children; I’ve got two in college and that’ll soon be three, because my middle daughter will actually be graduating in June. So the instability of not necessarily knowing how much I’m going to make — that’s definitely something that weighs on you a bit.
MT: Do you think the emergency manager is going to be able to solve Detroit’s fiscal problems?
Cockrel: Not all of them. My take on an EM is that it’s an unfortunate turn of events, it shouldn’t have come to this — I don’t think it had to come to this — but now here we are. So I think we gotta try to make the best of a bad decision, and I think we also have to recognize that there are certain pluses to having someone in city government that has the powers that he has.
I do think that there are certain fixes that Kevyn Orr can potentially execute. Is he going to be able to fix everything? Probably not … there are certain issues involving Detroit’s finances that he can’t fix.
The big part of the reason we are where we are isn’t just because of problems in city government — bad management or other issues — it’s because of trends that have been at play for decades.
MT: When 10,000 people leave the city annually, it’s never going to be a stable financial situation.
Cockrel: That’s the one I was just about to mention. I mean, the emergency manager can’t wave a magic wand and stem population decline. He can’t wave a magic wand and get people to start moving back into [Detroit] by the tens of thousands. He can’t wave a magic wand to get businesses to all of a sudden start locating in the city of Detroit and hanging out shingles.
MT: Is there concern that the EM will do what needs to be done [balancing the budget], and after he leaves the city returns to running deficits again?
Cockrel: Yeah, I think it is a concern. I think it’s something that people, for the most part, are not talking about.
If you look at the track record of emergency financial managers or emergency managers in Michigan, it’s been kind of a mixed bag. And even if you look at some of the cities that went through it earlier, they’re kind now right back on the precipice. Hamtramck’s an example.
There’s no one, unqualified success story that everybody can point to — and for that reason I think people need to look at this with some balance as opposed to drinking the Kool-Aid … which is not to say there won’t be any positives that can be accomplished.
MT: There are people who believe installing the EM was unconstitutional and should be fought at every step.
Cockrel: You’ve got some folks on council who take that approach — they may not be the majority, but you’ve definitely got some folks on council … that share that sentiment.
There are also a number of people in the community that feel that way. And we get a certain percentage of those folks that show up every Tuesday morning.
I’m sure that when I leave [Metro Times’ offices] and go to the Coleman A. Young building that some of those same folks are going to be there, and they’re going to be expressing those same sentiments because they come every Tuesday and do it.
That approach — to me — I don’t think is productive at this point. It’s sort of like trying to defuse a bomb after it’s already blown up. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
That’s why I said earlier, the EM is not the best situation, but you’ve gotta try to play the cards you’re dealt, and that’s how I look at it.
MT: What is your advice for Kevyn Orr?
Cockrel: Don’t just listen to the consultants, do your own homework. All these consultants have been brought in to do stuff — and I’m going to be very candid — I think some of them see a payday and a chance to enhance the reputation, and credibility, of their respective companies. There aren’t many private sector consultants that have done municipal turnarounds — especially on this scale.
The reality is many of them stand to make a lot of money off of this, and — assuming things go well — also have something to put on their websites and talk about when they’re interviewed by various businesses or publications. But that’s not necessarily focusing on what’s in the best interest of the city of Detroit.
So the best advice I’d give [Orr] is just don’t listen to the consultants, do your own homework.
MT: Did the state give the city a fair chance to implement the consent agreement?
Cockrel: No, no; definitely not. If you look at the consent agreement and if you look at the benchmarks and components — many were either completed or at various stages of being completed.
I think, at the end of the day, the governor clearly just got impatient. I think the state took a look at some numbers that it had, with respect to financial projections and cash flow, and made a conclusion — either rightly or wrongly — that the Bing administration just didn’t have a good handle on this; and council, regardless of how much it tried to assist, weren’t going to be able to get it done.
MT: Do you think the state was sincere when it initially forced the consent agreement on the city?
Cockrel: I do think they were sincere. I don’t think the governor or the treasurer wanted to pull the trigger on an emergency manager. I don’t think that’s something that they wanted to see happen.
I think the preference was some sort of alternative approach, which was chosen in the form of the consent agreement — the Fiscal Stability Agreement.
I think the state was sincere in wanting to work with the city a year ago — and it was the mayor that initially was hugely resistant to the idea of doing a consent agreement.
I think that the state was there … a majority of the city council was there, but the mayor didn’t really want to do it.
So it took some discussion and some negotiating … you had a working group consisting of the council president, Charles Pugh, James Tate and myself who were a block of people from City Council who wound up negotiating with the state and the mayor to do a consent agreement.
MT: Given how things turned out, would you have taken the same approach again?
Cockrel: Yeah, I would’ve. Because what would have been the alternative?
MT: How will we know if Kevyn Orr and Jones Day have done a good job in terms of gaining concessions from bondholders?
Cockrel: That’s an interesting question. I think, more or less, it points to a larger question of transparency for the EM. Thing about the mayor is that he’s an elected official so he has to be transparent to a certain extent. The council arguably has to be more transparent by the nature of how it operates, because we’re a legislative body, so we can’t do secret meetings.
With Kevyn Orr, it’s a whole different ball game. Do we know how much this guy is spending on staff? Do we know what his travel expenses may be?
When those [financial negotiations with bankers] are cut — to the extent he is successful — how is that going to be reported?
I did have discussions with him about this when I met with him last week, and I know that it’s something he’s already begun thinking about. But do I know exactly what the answer is? I’d have to say no, and ultimately it’s probably a question best directed to him.
MT: During your time as mayor, what did you learn about the job that you didn’t know?
Cockrel: In terms of the technical aspects, I would say there’s nothing I learned that I didn’t know — just from having been in city government awhile, I had a pretty good handle, even though I had never [been the executive].
From a personal standpoint, in terms of actually being there, I’d say the one thing I learned about it that I wasn’t quite ready for — and I adapted but it still was kind of rough — is that being mayor is the kind of job where you can walk into your office and you don’t really know what the hell you’re going to wind up doing with that day.
You might have your calendar all mapped out and you think, “OK, I know what I’m going to be doing today,” but then something happens … and you have to totally recalibrate. … So that’s the thing I think that maybe threw me for the loop — the extent to which things change just on an hour-by-hour basis, based on factors that are completely beyond your control. That’s the one thing that … is a butt kicker.
MT: During your time on council there were some very tumultuous events the city went through: the mayor being forced from office; fellow councilmembers going to prison for taking bribes.
Cockrel: When things like that happen, it tends to take the entire body, it tends to [taint] the entire institution; there’s an old saying that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.
But unfortunately for the city of Detroit, from a public perception standpoint, it does. And that has really been a big part of the problem with City Council.
All it takes is just one person to do something incredibly stupid — or incredibly corrupt — and get caught, and now it becomes what is in the media.
And it’s hard to counter that because, no matter how hardworking I may be, no matter how many good pieces of legislation I may write and get through City Council, the reality is that stuff is never going to get as much press as one of my colleagues having ghost employees — and then getting investigated and ultimately indicted by the federal government for doing that.
I’m not bellyaching about that, and a lot of that, unfortunately, is kind of just the nature of the news business.
MT: Having started your career as a journalist, did your view of journalism change at all as a result of being on the other side of it?
Cockrel: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that it really has. I’ve still got a lot of respect for journalism as a profession and for journalists. The only thing I would say is I would encourage reporters to not go for the easy story. I think all too often you get many reporters who go for the easy story as opposed to really digging and investigating.
MT: Shifting gears, did you ever feel a sense of burden being the son of a man so highly admired by many Detroiters?
Cockrel: I would say I felt maybe burdened by it earlier in my career than I do now. Early on in my career, particularly when I got on City Council, I would sometimes hear stuff on the streets like, “He’s not like his daddy.”
People would expect me to come in and make a real fiery speech or throw a chair across a table. But the reality is that approach doesn’t always get it done anymore, and I think a lot of folks have trouble understanding that. You can’t necessarily fix a 2013 problem with a 1968 approach — and I think a lot of folks in this community, at a grassroots organizing level, don’t get that.
Having said that, I will never undervalue the importance of picking up a picket sign occasionally or organizing a protest rally or a march. I think there’s always going to be be an important place and a role for that, but I also recognize it’s a different world and you have to approach certain issues and problems differently.
MT: Did you say, “I’m not my dad” and people just had to accept that?
Cockrel: [Early on] it was more of a struggle, more of a burden. Then it got to a point where I just didn’t think about it anymore. I don’t really think about it at all now. I look at it this way: I think that if my dad were still alive, and still out there making moves, I don’t know that he would necessarily be using the same approach that he used in 1969 or 1970, because if you don’t change with the times and adapt, then you wind up a dinosaur in a museum, and who wants to be that?
MT: During council’s vote to approve the contract with the Miller Canfield law firm, which you approved, someone in the audience shouted, “Your dad would be ashamed of you.”
Cockrel: Yeah, I’ve heard that before: “Oh, your daddy would be rolling over in his grave,” and I’ve heard that before, but like I said, it’s a different world. It’s 2013.
MT: Monica Conyers famously called you “Shrek,” what’s your secret for keeping your cool?
Cockrel: I have lost it in a couple sessions. It’s been very few, but there have been a couple meetings. I remember there was one meeting where I really did lose it, because one of my colleagues said something that pissed me off — and I went off … I guess, in this day and age, we’re all maybe — at best — two or three steps removed from a YouTube disaster; I guess that’s always in the back of my head. You sort of try to play it cool, because there’s a risk that the thing goes viral — and Daniel Tosh is making fun of you on the latest episode of Tosh.0; that Shrek thing did go viral, and I have seen that, actually.
MT: You seem to have a sense of dignity about the job.
Cockrel: You have to think about the institution. What you do reflects not just on you as an individual — it reflects on the institution. When you asked me that question about serving on council when some of these other things were going on, and [whether] it makes your job harder — all it takes is one to do something, and then the whole council ends up getting painted with that brush.
MT: How would you describe the current relationship between the city and the suburbs?
Cockrel: That’s a good question. I think we’re still not where we need to be; this is still a very, very racially polarized region.
I remember seeing some statistical data a number of years ago that showed Chicago was considered the most heavily polarized region in the country; but I think we were running pretty close behind.
I don’t know where we are now, and I generally think that it’s still very racially polarized. I mean the reality is there are far too many people who look at Detroit as a place to go for Tiger games or to see an opera or a Red Wings game, but don’t want to live here.
I’d like to see Detroit become a more diverse city and I think we’re ways away from that. I’d like to see us become an international city; I know some people look at that and say, “Well Detroit is 80 percent African-American, aren’t you proud of your own people?”
Yeah, absolutely I am. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world — I go to cities like Toronto, Geneva, New York, Paris — all cities that we would think of being very, very cool cities. And, if you look at one of the things that are generally cited as one of the reasons why they’re cool, it’s because they’re diverse.
You know, not just economically but culturally. I would like to see that for this city. I’d like to see us become an international city.
MT: Can it be seen as a situation where some people with vested interests don’t want to see their political power diminished by becoming a more diverse city?
Cockrel: Well, the way I look at it, the most important color in Detroit right now is green. We need more green in this city; we need more money in this city.
I think anything we can do to encourage that, regardless of who’s coming in to live or who’s coming in to invest, I think that’s what we need to be about the business of doing. I think that’s more important.
MT: Tomorrow is another day, so what’s next?
Cockrel: I have a couple things that I’m looking at … My plan is to basically do two things for the rest of this year: one is finish up this term, but the other is — on a personal level — look at the things I’ve been offered and look at some of the things I’ve been exploring and trying to put together and then solidify them by the end of the year.
Because, come January 1 … I don’t want to be unemployed. So that’s the goal and that’s the game plan.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.