Racial Wounds Resurface in Detroit Election Year

Corey Williams, AP, March 6, 2009

Cobo convention center, one of the many aging buildings downtown, is threatening to become the latest tinderbox in resurgent racial hostilities between the mostly black city and its predominantly white suburbs.

With calls for self-determination in how the venue operates, members of Detroit’s embattled City Council have reopened wounds more than four decades old. That’s led to stinging newspaper editorials, daily radio commentary and Web site blogs accusing City Council President Monica Conyers of perpetuating the area’s negative racial attitudes and stereotypes.

And according to two other council members, all for the sake of votes.

“The minute you get to an election year, all bets are off on what the outcome of any high-profile controversial issue or action will be,” said Sheila Cockrel, the lone white on the eight-member board.

At issue is a state plan to turn over the city-owned Cobo to a regional authority, which would include one representative each from Detroit, the governor’s office and Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. The deal would mean a $288 million expansion of Cobo and also would relieve the financially struggling city of about $15 million in annual subsidies.

Last week, Conyers, who is black, told a white Teamsters’ union official during a contentious meeting on whether to accept the deal that most of the people who work at Cobo during the annual North American International Auto Show “don’t look like me. They look like you.”

The council’s action elicited an angry response from one of the deal’s backers.

“Every spring the swallows come back to Capistrano. The buzzards come back to Hinckley, Ohio, and every election in Detroit, whoever is running for office, is going to play the race card and beat up whitey in the suburbs,” Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who is white, told The Associated Press.

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Conyers said she wasn’t race-baiting. “Everybody’s played the race card but me. I’ve not said anything about race,” she said Wednesday.

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But pushed by Conyers, the council voted 5-3 to nix the transfer plan. Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. vetoed the council vote Wednesday. His frequent nemesis, Conyers, said Thursday evening that the council’s research and analysis director will file a court injunction as early as Monday to stop the veto.

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“I don’t think that was racist,” Conyers insisted during a break in Tuesday’s council meeting. “When I go to Cobo Hall and they’re working, that’s what I see, and I don’t think that’s racist by telling the truth.”

Behind the rhetoric are political futures that begin with an Aug. 4 nonpartisan primary.

More than 300 people have picked up petitions to run for nine council seats.

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“The council has been out of favor with the community for a number of years,” said councilman Kwame Kenyatta, who along with Sheila Cockrel cast two of the three votes opposing Conyers’ push to end the Cobo deal.

A proponent of black self-determination, Kenyatta believes Conyers’ statement was intended to find favor with disenchanted voters.

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