Young brings aggressive Senate style to mayor’s race

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Detroit mayoral candidate Coleman Young II has a gift for gab that has often entertained but occasionally frustrated colleagues during his nearly 11 years in the Michigan Legislature, where he’s developed a reputation as one of the most aggressive orators.

The 34-year-old state senator jumped into verbal jousting soon after joining the House in 2007, when a shouting match involving now-Sen. Jack Brandenburg nearly escalated “into a fist fight on the floor,” the Macomb County Republican recalls.

“One thing led to another and all of a sudden he was just coming straight at me,” said Brandenburg, who stands well over 6 feet tall and is known to speak his mind. “People pulled us apart. We were going to get right down to it.”

Young apologized the morning after the heated budget debate, said Brandenburg, who wrote it off as a disagreement between “two hard heads from the neighborhood.”

A decade later, the 65-year-old Harrison Township lawmaker considers Young a friend.

“I respect him and I like him,” Brandenburg said. “Obviously our styles are different; however, I think when the lights and the cameras go off, you have a very intelligent and soulful young man.”

In interviews with The Detroit News, fellow senators and staff described Young as a hard worker, caring individual and passionate advocate for Detroit. They say he is known to carry around stacks of bills and appears to read most of them line-by-line.

Young doesn’t recall the details of the decade-old incident with Brandenburg. But as he approaches the last year of his final Senate term, he said he has no regrets about his early days in the Legislature.

“Listen, as a man, you have to take a stand for what you believe in, and you have to stand up for what’s right, and you have to have a code of conduct,” Young said. “Sometimes that’s going to rub people the wrong way.”

While colleagues like Young, few think he has a realistic opportunity to defeat Mayor Mike Duggan, who won the primary election 68 percent to 27 percent over Young and has a major fundraising advantage. None of Young’s fellow Detroit senators is backing him in the November general election.

Sen. Ian Conyers early on endorsed Duggan. Sen. Morris Hood hasn’t endorsed and Sen. Bert Johnson, who is fighting federal corruption charges, said he hasn’t been asked to back anyone.

“I think that’s why we have the democratic process: Everyone has a chance,” Hood said. “We’ve seen stranger things happen in elections around this state and even in this country the past couple years.”

Democrats are badly outnumbered in the Senate — there are more members of “the Wu-Tang Clan” than in the caucus, Young once joked — so words are one of their most powerful weapons. Young is a vocal leader in that regard, often mixing passionate pleas with impromptu humor.

“Any man that would sacrifice democracy for money deserves neither democracy nor money,” Young said in 2014 during a 12-minute speech opposing the so-called “grand bargain” that paved Detroit’s exit from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

The plan saw the state contribute $195 million as part of a deal to minimize pension cuts for municipal retirees. It was paired with hundreds of millions of dollars from philanthropic groups to prevent a possible fire sale at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Young, one of two senators to vote against the legislation, blasted the deal because it created a long-term Financial Review Commission that continues to oversee Detroit budgets even though the city is no longer under a state-appointed emergency manager.

“This oversight commission is like me at Buffalo Wild Wings — once you let ’em in, they never leave,” he said before the vote.

For similar reasons, he also voted in 2016 against a $617 million Detroit Public Schools bailout that restored an elected school board but expanded oversight by the Financial Review Commission, arguing it would not do enough to help the district survive.

“You can say whatever you want to say about me, you can say whatever you want about my family, but we have never sold the people out,” said Young, who was raised by his mother but is the son of former Mayor Coleman Young.

“We’ve always fought for them, we’ve always tried to leave the situation better than we found it and we believe power is only important as an instrument to serve the powerless,” he said this week.

Legislative record

With the mayoral race in full swing, Young has missed three of six session days this month since the Senate returned from summer break.

“Right now, what we’re doing is we’re putting in work, we’re talking to people and campaigning,” he said by phone after missing Thursday’s session. “I want to be there, but I’m putting in work right now.”

Young has sponsored six bills that have become law since he started in the House in 2007, and four since Republicans took full control of state government in 2011.

His most significant legislative victory came in 2009, when he passed a bipartisan law to guarantee anti-discrimination protections for women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.

The proposal followed a 2008 lawsuit by female Detroit police officers who sued the city in federal court because department rules required them to take sick leave while pregnant instead of getting light-duty assignments offered to males limited by injuries suffered outside work.

State Sen. Rick Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican and former sheriff, worked with Young on the bill. They’ve since sparred on a variety of topics, including marijuana legalization, which Young has advocated through repeated calls to “free the weed.”

“I’ve beat up on him when it was appropriate, but I can tell you I genuinely find him to be a nice guy,” Jones said. “I don’t think he’ll ever be elected mayor, but I’m happy to walk across the aisle and talk to him about things.”

Young has become most well-known for how he fights legislation he opposes.

Behind the scenes of the “grand bargain” debate, Young quickly digested a policy document that spanned hundreds of pages, said Bob McCann, a former Senate Democratic spokesman. He asked officials detailed questions about the package before casting one of the only no votes in the upper chamber.

“It was impressive to see the level of specificity at a time when people think, more often than not, pieces of legislation get passed without anyone bothering to read them,” McCann said. “He’s clearly a hard worker and someone that does legitimately care about the city and people he represents.”

Colleagues say Young appreciates uniqueness and is not afraid to flaunt his own.

“As a longtime political watcher, the business of governance can sometimes be really painful and awful,” said former Senate Democratic spokeswoman Angela Vasquez-Giroux. “Sometimes it’s nice to have someone speak truth to power, with a little humor.”

It starts with a quote

Young begins most of his floor speeches by quoting famous figures and books. In the process, he has become one of the most quotable politicians in Lansing.

He has channeled former first lady Michelle Obama, Albert Einstein, the Bible, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and even Tyrion Lannister, a fictional character from the HBO television show “Game of Thrones.”

Colleagues sometimes laugh, guffaw or roll their eyes when Young gets on a roll — even some Democrats privately say he’s occasionally difficult to take seriously — but they usually listen.

Beneath the flashy prose is a politician who does his homework on bills and shows kindness to most anyone who crosses his path, according to those he’s worked with.

“I think if anyone were to discount his dedication to his job simply because he acts differently than others do on the Senate floor, because he likes quoting people or slipping a joke in while he’s talking about something very serious… you’re really losing out on getting to know just what a smart guy he really is,” McCann said.

Colleagues break out into smiles when asked to name their favorite Young speech.

“He’s got this thing where he talks about crime being hideous and putting the onus of that responsibility on us legislators to help get rid of it for everyday people,” said Conyers, who joined the Senate in late 2016. “He goes ‘it’s hideous, it’s hideous.’ He uses that baritone he’s got to really drive the points home.”

Young said negotiating and compromising are important parts of his job in Lansing, but he acknowledged vocal opposition is a primary role for outnumbered Senate Democrats.

“In our representative democracy, the majority governs and the minority is heard,” he said. “That’s basically what we have and that’s basically what we’re governing with.”

Young occasionally takes his free-flowing rhetoric too far in the Senate, a characteristic that has affected his mayoral campaign as well. He recently sparked controversy when at the end of a rap video he mentioned that white supremacy is happening in the country and “we cannot have that going on in the Manoogian,” referring to the mayor’s residence.

Critics viewed it as a form of race-baiting against Duggan, the city’s first white mayor since Young’s father became the first black mayor in 1974.

“I don’t think Sen. Young has a mean bone in his body, but he does go direct sometimes, and some people don’t know how to handle that directness, and they find it offensive,” Hood said.

State Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who is supporting Duggan’s re-election bid, said Young brings “great passion for the city of Detroit to Lansing every day.”

“He isn’t afraid to reach across the aisle to have difficult conversations,” Knezek said.