Professor, pastor, felon among City Council candidates
Detroit — A Wayne State University law professor, a pastor and a convicted felon are among the candidates vying Tuesday for a spot on the November ballot in a special race to fill a seat on the City Council.
Councilwoman Janee Ayers, 34, was appointed to the at-large post in February 2015 and is hoping to retain it. The former MGM Grand Detroit Casino employee is backed by the city’s administration, union groups and other county, state and city leaders.
But her challengers, including prominent activist the Rev. David Bullock, who was the third-highest vote getter in the 2013 at-large race for council, say they would best serve constituents.
Bullock, a former philosophy professor from Midtown, received more than 39,000 votes in the prior council election. He said Ayers represents the “status quo establishment” and noted her appointment wasn’t decided by city voters.
“I think I am the people’s candidate,” said Bullock, senior pastor of Greater St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in Highland Park. “I want to be the guy who represents neighborhoods and brings not just their gripes but also their hopes to the table.”
Ayers was selected by the council under a process the panel adopted after Saunteel Jenkins resigned in October 2014. The appointment runs through Dec. 31.
The District 1 resident also has served as recording secretary for UNITE HERE Local 24 that represents about 6,000 hospitality workers. She sits on four subcommittees and said she’s spent her life “working for working people.”
Making decisions for 160,000 working families, she said, is a labor of love and not “the status quo.”
Since taking office, Ayers initiated legislation to hold owners of blighted property accountable and said her office has resolved more than 500 residents’ concerns. Ayers, whose father was in and out of jail due to drug addition, also established a task force for returning residents to help other families like hers.
“I can relate to more Detroiters than anybody else can,” she said. “I’ve lived their life.”
Other contenders are first-time candidate Eric Williams, who heads Wayne State’s small business law clinic; John Cromer, a felon turned advocate for fair hiring practices; and former paralegal Sigmunt J. Szczepkowski Jr.
Two candidates will advance to the general election on Nov. 8. The winner will finish the unexpired term, which runs from Jan. 1, 2017, to Jan. 1, 2018. The job pays about $77,000 per year. The next round of four-year terms for Detroit’s council will be decided by voters in November 2017.
Williams, a West Village resident, worked in the nonprofit sector at Focus: HOPE and earned a law degree at Columbia University School of Law, serving in private practice in New York City before returning to Detroit.
Recently, he met with 30 community groups in 30 days to learn about neighborhood concerns. Tops, he said, are development, ensuring the community a voice and improving business opportunities.
“I’m not doing this because I need a job,” said Williams, 48. “I’m doing this because I really care about my city.”
Cromer spent 13 years in prison on a retail fraud conviction before he was released in 2004. He claims his background as an ex-offender resonates with many.
If elected, Cromer, who made a failed bid for the council in 2009, said he would work on a law that would require city contractors to employ some former offenders in Detroit.
“I put myself out here like this because this is an opportunity to get the message out about second chances and how important they are,” said Cromer, 50, a Conant Gardens resident. “We must give people a sense of direction that’s going to keep them out of trouble in the first place.”
Szczepkowski, 56, has made past bids for the council and mayor, Wayne County executive, state representative and Senate.
The east-side resident said he’s been an activist for the community and has a felony conviction for assault stemming from a scuffle during a break-in at his home in 1994.
If elected, he said he’ll work to reduce the city’s high auto and homeowners insurance rates, address neighborhood issues, police and EMS response times, and bus service.
“We need somebody from the neighborhood that understands what a voter goes through,” said Szczepkowski. “They need solutions today, not tomorrow.”