‘Help me help Mary,” wrote the Rev. Horace L. Sheffield, a local civil rights activist, in an Oct. 6 email blast seeking supporters for the re-election of his daughter Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. The email urged prospective volunteers to join her in pounding the pavement for votes ahead of the Nov. 7 general election.
Sheffield, who represents Detroit’s District 5, is locked in a fierce battle against longtime Wayne County Commissioner Jewel Ware. Ware, a veteran campaigner and former chairwoman has won a string of contests — at times, even without the crucial support of labor — since joining the commission in the early 1990s.
The councilwoman comes from a lineage of activists. Her grandfather Horace Sheffield Jr. was a civil rights stalwart who founded the Detroit Trade Union Labor Council. She was propelled four years ago to the council —largely through name recognition — becoming the youngest member of that body at age 26.
Ware, who also has strong name recognition, enters the fray with decades of experience in the political trenches as a social justice advocate, and strong pull with seniors, the city’s most loyal voting bloc. Her longstanding senior day programs that highlight the challenges facing senior citizens while offering health care tips and championing issues for that audience over the years have been must-attend functions for politicos in the city, especially candidates running for office.
This race is sure to be full of drama and intrigue, and is likely to be some sort of a bellwether for the future of city politics. Both candidates have been criss-crossing the district and speaking at all kinds of events and community dinners, such as the Historic Boston-Edison Association 90th anniversary gala earlier this year.
Also at stake, the continuing debate on the future of Detroit’s neighborhoods, as District 5 is considered not only the largest of the seven geographic council districts, but also encapsulates the economic structure and demographic battle that epitomizes the “two Detroit” phenomenon.
The district covers downtown, Midtown, New Center and the stable communities Boston-Edison, East English Village, Indian Village, LaSalle Gardens, and Virginia Park as well as other less viable areas such as Linwood and Dexter, and Mack and Bewick. Even the Manoogian Mansion, the city residence of the mayor in the Berry subdivision, is in that district.
The district illustrates the mixed divide between wealth and poverty where some areas have concentrated wealth like downtown and its surroundings, and other areas like parts of Detroit’s east side contain remnants of the persistent income inequality that has disproportionately affected many of the city’s neighborhoods.
In essence District 5 is a place where both the rich and powerful live side by side with the poor and the powerless. The striking contrasts underscore the delicate role of any politician who has to respond to the needs of big business, while attending to the ever growing demand for more economic diversity in places where the revival of the city is not felt.
“Since taking office I have been intentional about steering development and funding to the neighborhoods I serve,” Sheffield said. “I also have been intentional about working to make sure the city of Detroit moves toward more inclusive and equitable development as it relates to the use of city resources and tax incentives.”
Sheffield became a target of community activists after a controversial vote to give the Detroit Pistons professional basketball team nearly $34.5 million in tax breaks to help move its practice facilities to Detroit. Under pressure to change her vote she went on a community explanatory tour to explain why she voted for the deal. Those discussions and the ultimate backlash led the council, at her suggestion, to create the Neighborhood Improvement Fund, which “captures the income taxes of the Pistons and visiting teams” and for the funding of the city’s housing trust fund which is expected to serve city residents who are at or below the 50 percent mark of the area’s median income.
“I am working day and night to make sure that I connect with the residents of District 5 and ensure that voters understand the type of representation they have received since I began serving as well as the dedication and compassion I have for addressing their needs,” Sheffield said. “I am confident in my track record, my ability, and the political astuteness of the District 5 electorate.”
Ware would only say that she is busy campaigning and isn’t taking anything for granted. She said she wants the best for District 5 residents.
“We must prioritize the allocation of the city’s budget to protect services which includes neighborhoods,” Ware said. “The city of Detroit has gone through many challenges. When elected, we must continue to review the city’s finances and pay close attention to abandoned houses and blight, restoring senior services and stand up for lower auto insurance.”
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.