Bulletin: A thorough investigation has established that Detroit does, in fact, have a City Council. You would, however, have a hard time learning anything about what it does from the media. This is rather amazing, since the council is actually supposed to function as an elected legislature for the city, much as Congress does for the nation.
True, individual members of council do get written about from time to time. They include one fiery watchdog, Maryann Mahaffey, now 76, who does her best to get her colleagues to do their jobs and question authority, for which she is increasingly treated with affectionate condescension (last angry white liberal, etc.).
We also have an admitted wife-beater, a son of a political legend, the last wife of the same political legend, a former celebrity cop-turned-casino shill, a minister who is the son of a former councilman/minister, a woman who is frequently incomprehensible and a couple of people who might have a hard time holding any real job.
Every one of them gets an office, enough money to hire at least four to five paid staffers, a car, and a salary of $81,000 a year. They have the authority to pass legislation, have final say over the budget, and collectively have as much or more power than the mayor.
So what do they do to justify their existence? “Well, there have been a couple of times when we have slowed things down,” Mahaffey reflected. Once in a blue moon, they have prevented a city department from buying some dubious piece of equipment or hiring some questionable contractor.
Yes, they also pass resolutions honoring retirees and protesting executions in Texas and conditions in tiny oppressed countries, and commit other worthy irrelevant acts.
But basically, they go along to get along. While the newspapers certainly don’t do their job covering government anymore, the council also hasn’t acted anything like a real, independent branch of government for a long time.
Which is why Sharon McPhail ought to run for Detroit City Council.
Right now, this year, and win. If she does, we will finally get a chance to see what she is really made of. But I suspect having her on council also would be a tremendously good thing for the city. She is, love her or hate her, smart, well-educated, witty, and tough as nails. She doesn’t take no for an answer, takes a licking and keeps on ticking, and whatever else she may do, you know she will never, ever, be Dennis Archer’s lapdog.
And if — as seems likely — he runs for and wins another term, the last thing we need is four more years without anybody asking the hard questions or casting a shrewd lawyer’s eye over government contracts and deals cut with the likes of Mike Ilitch.
Detroit City Council right now does not have any leader, in the sense of someone who can build a coalition to stop train wrecks or to get the people’s work done. Nor is there a single attorney on the council. Having too many lawyers can certainly be a weakness, but having none isn’t good, either.
But ... Sharon McPhail? Come on! you say. To a lot of people, she is a thin-skinned loser, the spiritual successor to everything they disliked about Coleman Young.
Well, that’s not fair. Yes, she has made mistakes. Let’s look at the record: She came out of nowhere to get into the mayoral runoff in 1993. The powers had all anointed Archer, and she was seen as a dangerous annoyance, especially the better she did.
They beat the heck out of her — and to be sure, she helped. She was too thin-skinned, hadn’t run for office before, and made mistakes. She also was endorsed by then-Mayor Young — and had no choice, if she wanted to wage a competitive race, but to accept his help, though, as everyone now forgets, she wasn’t his first choice in the primary.
I didn’t think she was ready to be mayor then, and said so. Five years later she ran against Ed McNamara, and all the big boys combined to crush her candidacy.
That should have been that, they figured. But lo, she rose from the dead and very nearly got elected Wayne County prosecutor last year. The newspapers panicked when she surged ahead in the polls; they decided she was the enemy of their agenda long ago.
The Free Press wrote a fawning editorial that might have been written by Mike Duggan’s well-paid campaign consultants. The News endorsed poor hopeless Virgil Smith, to pull votes away from McPhail. When she lost, by some 11,000 votes, she paid for a recount. “I knew it was hopeless, but I found what I was afraid I’d find — plain and simple vote fraud,” she told me. Votes not counted; votes disappeared; votes discovered mysteriously. Nobody paid much attention; this was, after all, three months before Florida, and we all knew you couldn’t steal an election in the good old U.S. of A., right?
I don’t have any idea if she might really have won, but I did notice something different in that campaign; a different Sharon McPhail. She didn’t turn nasty, she thought before she spoke; she put forth a sensible plan for reorganizing the prosecutor’s office.
When that was over, I was curious as to whether she would be drawn into another kamikaze run for mayor; that she apparently won’t is one sign that she has matured.
Sources say she is now close to making a decision to run for council. Her enemies will have a hard time keeping her out of the money there. Unless you think one-man rule is just peachy, that has to be good news for Detroit — whoever ends up as mayor.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com