Detroit’s City Council President Maryann Mahaffey should have been tired when I went to see her last week. It was Friday afternoon; she had been to the doctor for a nasty sinus infection, and had been running around the city all week.
But here she was, on the phone at almost 6 p.m., when the building was nearly deserted, checking reports that Hmong residents on the East Side were being discriminated against. “I cannot stand discrimination,” she told me. She remembers visiting Arkansas as a girl, and other girls bragging that they could go downtown and force black people to walk in the street.
Naturally, they didn’t call them black people. All that upset Maryann so much she ran and hid until she realized she had no idea how to get back to where she was staying. Later, training to be a social worker, she worked in one of the concentration camps where we outrageously locked up Japanese citizens during World War II.
That helped shape her mission in life, which, simply put, is to end discrimination, and to work to make democracy and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence (all men are created equal) as real as possible for everyone.
However, I had been wondering about two things. First of all, would she run again next year? Mahaffey has been on the council since January 1974, arriving the same day Coleman Young arrived as mayor.
Though a few members have served as long as she has, no one, so far as I can tell, has served as many consecutive years.
Nor has any member been so important for so long. Most residents and even some reporters don’t realize it, but if Kwame Kilpatrick were to resign, or be called by Our Lord to be with the angels tomorrow, she would become mayor.
Nobody, even her enemies, has argued that Maryann is losing her marbles. Discuss the city budget with her for five minutes, and then attempt to have the same conversation with most other members, and you’ll get a fair idea of where the intellectual rigor is on Detroit’s greatest deliberative body.
Anyone who thinks Mahaffey is a nice old fuzzy-thinking do-gooder lady hasn’t ever had a hard conversation with her about politics or the city.
Yet she will be 80 in January. If she serves another full term, she will be almost 85 before it ends. Does she think she should run again?
What I also wanted to know was what she thinks of the current state of this city of ours. I know of no other perceptive political observer who has been engaged with the city longer. Not only has she been on council longer than half the nation’s population has been alive, she has lived in Detroit since September 1952, when the city was at an all-time population high of close to 2 million.
Detroit was an enormous national political and economic powerhouse then, a place where presidents kicked off re-election campaigns and suburbanites tried to sneak their kids into the schools. We’ve been declining ever since, and the U.S. Census Bureau says the population is now down to barely 911,000.
Does she think Detroit has reached its lowest point?
“No, the city has been in worse shape, and something is happening that I think is very positive: the rise of these nonprofit neighborhood economic development corporations,” she said. “There are dozens of them.”
When someone mentioned that a succession of mayors had promised to do something for the neighborhoods (and hadn’t) she said, “The neighborhoods have figured out that they are going to have to do it for themselves.”
Yet she doesn’t hide the fact that she doesn’t have much respect for the current occupant of the mayor’s office. “He shows no respect for the council, no respect for checks and balances of representative government.”
Nor does she think he has the maturity needed to be mayor. In the past, Maryann has grumbled about mayors — but seldom on the record.
Coleman Young, she says, started off being a man who was reasonable, who respected the council and whom you could argue with, though he became increasingly isolated and peevish in his later years.
“The business community loved Dennis Archer, but he couldn’t relate to the man on the street, and he didn’t respect council’s role as much as he should.”
Yet Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration has hit a new low. She endorsed no one last election, though she, like many, quietly voted for Kwame rather than his opponent, the shopworn, tired-seeming, and ethically dubious Gil Hill.
She won’t be fooled again. Mahaffey couldn’t care less about Kilpatrick’s alleged nightclubbing. What angers her is that City Council can’t get information it needs and is legally entitled to have. “What we need most is respect for the system, and a realization that we are all in this together,” she says, adding “Absolutely!” when asked if she wants Anyone But Kwame.
Most likely, she will support Sharon McPhail, who plans to run with Benny Napoleon, the former police chief, as her designated deputy.
“She would be a hell of a lot better than anyone out there who has expressed interest. She has values and principles, for one thing.”
Mahaffey is all about values and integrity and accountability. Frankly, I expected her to be a little coy as to whether she’ll run again. The election, after all, is more than a year away. But she was characteristically direct.
“Yes, I’m running,” she said cheerfully the minute I asked. No, she doesn’t think she is indispensable, or that she has a monopoly on wisdom.
But “I have a passion for this city and the people who live in it,” she said. And she wants to help make sure that city government “makes sure that we remember that we never lose sight of the people themselves. We live in their city, and their interests should be the center of whatever we do.”Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org