Does Detroit’s Last White City Council Member Have a Political Future?

Steven Gray, Time, December 18, 2009

Sheila Murphy Cockrel, a member of the Detroit City Council, has never been afraid to swim against the tide. She opposed proposals to create “Africa Town,” a district exclusively for black-owned businesses in the heart of downtown. She regularly sparred with the city’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in 2008 amid enormous legal problems. Just last month, she drew headlines for abruptly leaving the council’s chambers to protest a rushed measure, backed by Christian conservatives, to restrict alcohol sales at Detroit’s strip clubs. “It was an act of democracy to walk out and not let the process be hijacked by people with a narrow interest,” she said later.

But, in some ways, Cockrel is a relic of Detroit’s past. She is the only white member of the city council and, when her term ends later this month, she could well be its last. Even though she is personally popular, she is leaving the council partly because she is tired of the scandals that have rocked the city lately. {snip}

Demographer William H. Frey, of the Brookings Institute, projects that whites may account for only 5% of Detroit’s population by 2020. If those trends persist, it is unlikely that Detroit will ever again elect a white person to a major city-wide post. But Cockrel, 63, may try to buck that trend. She is now studying whether she has the kind of crossover appeal to win a Congressional seat out of Detroit.

Cockrel is aware that much of her potential bid’s appeal and challenge lies in her personal narrative. {snip}

Much of Cockrel’s attention shifted to various social justice causes, particularly fighting police brutality. That’s how she met Ken Cockrel Sr., an African-American attorney whom she eventually married. In the early 1970s, the couple supported the efforts of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, to integrate the city’s police force. That led to the appointment of Detroit’s first black police chief and, ultimately, the suspension of a unit known for harassing young black men. Cockrel helped her husband win a city council seat, and he was viewed as a leading potential successor to Young. But in 1989, Ken Cockrel Sr. had a heart attack and died. {snip}

{snip} She’s also had her differences with the current city council president–Ken Cockrel Jr., her own stepson. {snip}

Cockrel says that race and ethnicity did not factor into her decision to leave Detroit’s city council. Ultimately, she says, residents will elect “people they believe are authentically going to represent their interests–and get their lights on.” But race remains an unavoidable theme in this region’s narrative. Some blacks have called Cockrel a racist, despite her background, while whites have questioned her racial authenticity. During a dinner at a downtown Cuban restaurant recently, a white suburbanite told her, “You’re one of my black friends.” Cockrel wasn’t amused.

{snip}

Officially, Cockrel says she will teach public policy at Wayne State University. But many political observers expect her to be a formidable candidate for the Congressional seat currently held by Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat and the former mayor’s mother. Kilpatrick is vulnerable, observers say, mainly because of her son’s persistent legal problems. Still, if Cockrel decides to run for the 13th Congressional district seat, she will face an uphill battle: the district was gerrymandered mainly to ensure an African-American majority.

{snip} Government’s fundamental functions must be reconsidered, she said, so citizens can regain confidence that it will provide basic services. She added, “There’s huge potential here.”

councilman

Sheila Murphy Cockrel.

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