The Detroit City Council has been volatile since the days of the late Clyde Cleveland. Unfortunately, the 2014 council may not be a better batch. (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)
Few things have amused me over the years more than the antics of the Detroit City Council.
I was in council chambers in the early 1980s when the late Jack Kelley loudly interrupted a resolution ceremony for two Japanese businessmen. Kelley, deep in his cups, produced a Louisville Slugger and banged it ferociously on the table while ranting about the purchase of the baseball bat’s manufacturer by a Japanese company. “You’re buying up America!” Kelley screamed at the terrified businessmen with every crack of the bat.
During that same time, Kenny Cockrel Sr. and Clyde Cleveland got into a wrestling match outside their offices. Cockrel was a scrapper, but the much beefier Cleveland got the better of him. A few days later, Cockrel meekly seconded a motion made by Cleveland, advising his colleagues, “Don’t mess with Clyde. He’ll kick your ass.”
Nobody does public corruption like Detroit. Recall Councilwoman Kay Everett, who just before her untimely death was accused by the feds of taking $150,000 from a city contractor. But all deals need a sweetener. In this case, it was the 17 pounds of sausage the contractor tossed in that tipped the scales for the councilwoman.
Everett also threatened to “go east side” on Sharon McPhail during an angry debate over a topless bar ordinance. The threat wasn’t carried out, disappointing observers curious to see what “going east side” looked like.
McPhail was no slouch herself in the crazy department. She once accused former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of rigging the electric massage pad she kept on her council chair to deliver shocks to her bottom. She didn’t hold a grudge, though, later agreeing to be Kilpatrick’s legal counsel.
No era was nuttier than the one that included Monica Conyers, Barbara Rose Collins and Martha Reeves. There was plenty of preaching, praying, shouting and singing at council meetings in those days — and name-calling too. I can’t look at Ken Cockrel Jr. and not think “Shrek” — the insult an angry Conyers (who went to jail for corruption) threw at him during a meeting.
I feared the fun was over four years ago, when voters elected a council with a majority of competent adults. That council batted well above average until the very end, when President Charles Pugh up and disappeared after seeming to ignore former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards’ admonition not to be “caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.”
This week, a largely new council signaled a return to form. It elected as its president the longtime obstructionist Brenda Jones, and as its second-in-command George Cushingberry, a slick political operator who has had his snout in the public trough for nearly 40 years.
Cushingberry responded to a Detroit News editorial harshly criticizing the elections by advising the newspaper to “Go to hell.” We can take it. What we can’t take is the real likelihood that Cushingberry and crew will continue the Detroit City Council tradition of taking the city to hell.
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.