Detroit City Council: The end of livin’ at large

Concurrent with an election that produced the biggest rearrangement of Detroit City Council in memory, city voters also put a stake in the long-maligned at-large council system that held for most of the last century.

This council sea change included the retirement of two council members (Barbara-Rose Collins and Sheila Cockrel), the withdrawal under indictment and plea deal of a third (Monica Conyers), the perhaps unprecedented rejection of an incumbent in the primary of a fourth (Martha Reeves) and the rare rejection of an incumbent in the general election (Alberta Tinsley-Talabi).

That’s not to mention to ascension to the top-vote-getting council presidency by political novice Charles Pugh and the reversal of fortune for former Council President and interim Mayor Ken Cockrel. Cockrel finished mid-pack (fourth place), just ahead of fellow incumbent Brenda Jones; incumbents Kwame Kenyatta and JoAnne Watson finished in eighth and ninth place respectively.

Newcomers Gary Brown and Saunteel Jenkins placed second and third between Pugh and Cockrel. Newcomers Andre Spivey and James Tate landed in the No. 7 and 8 slots between Jones and Kenyatta.

But one thing is certain is that this new council lineup will operate in a different political environment than its predecessors, since voters also approved 72-28 percent the proposal to replace the all at-large council system with one that has seven district seats and two at-large seats. Which is to say that the system that brought these nine winners on Tuesday is no more — and Tuesday’s winning strategies will have to be adjusted.

Will the top vote getters (and aspirants) posture differently than otherwise — with eyes on the at-large seats of 2013? And while we haven’t plotted out the addresses of the new council members, and while the new district boundaries are yet to be drawn, if the past is any guide, most of these candidates come from the city’s middle class islands, and more than a few of them are neighbors. Chances are that some of the council members eyeing district seats will be looking across the meeting table at likely opponents, and they’ll know that their potential audience is a specific community as well as the city at large.

Another change in the game: Unlike in the past, council candidates will have new incentives for challenging one another, which has largely been absent from the popularity contests that have passed for campaigns in the past. That could mean more negativity, rancor and factionalism in city politics — particularly as we near the next elections. But it could also bring the kind of feet-to-the-fire debates and discussions that the city needs more than ever.

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