High-profile contenders battle for Detroit's two at-large council seats

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — High-profile former elected officials, including the son of the city's first Black mayor, are competing for prestigious seats on the City Council representing all of Detroit's neighborhoods. 

At-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers is up against former state Sen. Coleman A. Young II, who took on Mike Duggan in the city's 2017 mayoral race; Charter Revision Commissioner Nicole Small; political organizer Jermain Lee Jones, and former state Rep. Mary Waters in the Aug. 3 race. The top four finishers advance to November's contest for two seats.

Incumbent (middle) Janeé Ayers is being challenged for her at-large seat and another seat by former state Sen. Coleman A. Young II (top left), Charter Revision Commissioner Nicole Small (top right), political organizer Jermain Lee Jones (bottom left) and former state Rep. Mary Waters (bottom right). Two at-large council members will be elected in November.

Among the issues the candidates have emphasized are improving the city's financial health, updating stormwater infrastructure, pursuing economic justice and making water a human right.

President Brenda Jones, the council's other at-large member, announced earlier this year that she won't seek another term.

Jones, the panel's longest-serving member, has served as president for seven years. In January, the newly elected nine-member council will select a new president and pro tem with a majority vote. 

Historically, the two candidates with the highest vote totals in the November general election were given those designations, but under a 2012 amendment to Detroit's City Charter, seven of nine members are elected by geographic district and the council decides which members will hold the leadership roles. 

Name recognition, as in past elections, will play prominently in the ability of candidates to get elected this year, said Karen Dumas, a former communications manager under former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. In a rare season, half of the incumbent council members aren't seeking reelection, leaving many open seats for the post-bankrupt city, she added.

"I don’t think we’ve had this many options recently," Dumas said. "It gives voters the opportunity to say if they are satisfied with the incumbents or want to give an opportunity to newcomers."

An at-large seat on Detroit's council means more visibility, responsibility and fundraising toward future career goals, noted Southfield-based political analyst Mario Morrow.

"As a city council member, the at-large position is very important. It will bring them a lot more visibility, a lot more recognition, with a lot more responsibility," he said. "But I will say, that does not make them a premier leader of the council like it had in the past if you became the top vote-getter."

Candidates are facing a greater challenge in this election, he said, with both fewer residents paying attention to politics amid the pandemic and fewer candidates out canvassing, paying for commercial spots or hosting events.

"It's a new way of campaigning with a lack of funding," Morrow said. "People just over the past year in 2020 have not paid much attention to local politics, which decreases the name recognition of the incumbents, and that can hurt people."

Incumbent boasts record

Ayers, 39, is seeking a second, four-year term. The former hospitality worker has been an at-large council member for the past six years and serves as chair of the council's Budget, Finance and Audit committee and vice chair of its Public Health and Safety committee. 

"I've fought to ensure that residents and small business owners had the resources they needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be food assistance or health supplies," she said.

At-large City Councilwoman Janee Ayers during a networking session at the Detroit Policy Conference at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit on July 13, 2021.

Before joining the council, Ayers worked as a mortgage banker at Quicken Loans and at MGM Grand Casino. There, she became the youngest member of the UNITEHERE! Local 24 contract bargaining team and worked as a teacher at an alternative education center for the Detroit school district.

In 2015, Ayers was appointed to finish the at-large term of Saunteel Jenkins who stepped down for a position with a Detroit-based nonprofit. Ayers was elected to a full term in 2017.

With many council colleagues departing, Ayers said it was essential to run to retain her post because "the next four years are crucial to the financial health of the city."

"Bankruptcy allowed us to pause some of our financial obligations, particularly our pension obligations," she said. "The city’s plan of adjustment created in the bankruptcy process requires us to start making significantly higher contributions to the city’s two pension systems over the next few years. Because of this, financial responsibility and management will be one of my top priorities for this next term."

Ayers, who has lived in North Rosedale Park and southwest Detroit, founded the council's Returning Citizens Task Force based on her family's experiences with incarceration and not having access to quality jobs.

If reelected, Ayers said she will work to ensure voter-approved blight bond funds are allocated to minority-owned small businesses that employ at least 51% Detroiters and focus on strengthening skilled trades training for city youth. 

"There is no comeback for Detroit unless it includes all Detroiters," Ayers said. "As a lifelong Detroiter, I am committed to building a better, more equitable and just city."

Young pushes vaccines

Young, 38, served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2005 to 2010 and served two terms in the state Senate from 2011-18. Three years ago, Young lost the primary for Michigan's 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House against U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. 

Young said his late father, Coleman A. Young, who led the city for two decades as Detroit’s first African American mayor, would say, “Always let the people find you working,” and Young II said he works to live up to the edict.

Former state lawmaker Coleman Young II, an at-large candidate for Detroit City Council, during a networking session at the Detroit Policy Conference at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit on July 13, 2021.

"I passed 13 laws that help working families while I was elected in Lansing; laws that cut property taxes; laws that gave working women paid maternity leave and kept their jobs safe; helped residents stay healthy to get heat and food; laws that brought money to my district residents and their families," Young said. 

On the council, Young said he would advocate for investment in stormwater infrastructure to prevent future flooding, more public health initiatives and encourage Detroiters to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

If elected, he said, "I will work with my colleagues and the administration in the same way that I worked across the aisle with Republican Majority legislatures in the House and Senate to get the job done for the people."

Small, 41, has served three years as the vice chair of the nine-member Detroit Charter Revision Commission. Small said as a council member she would continue advocating for equitable policies and economic justice.

"My work on the Charter Commission has afforded me the opportunity to work with Detroiters on how to transform their concerns with the deficiencies in local government into safeguards that increase government accountability and prosperity for residents," Small said.

From left, Nicole Small, at-large candidate for Detroit City Council, talks with George Adams of 360 Detroit, Inc. during a networking session at the Detroit Policy Conference at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit on July 13, 2021.

Small, a former member of the United Auto Workers, is now a human resources professional focused on providing relief for overtaxed homeowners. Her priorities are to implement a check-and-balance on the use of public funds for affordable water and housing, responsible contracting, equitable development and economic opportunities for small businesses.

"I’m committed to putting Detroiters first and not just putting it on a billboard," said Small, a frequent opponent of proposals from the Duggan administration.

Jones, 41, a political organizer and consultant, said he "can best articulate the conditions of the grassroots in Detroit's legislative process."

The former precinct delegate for Michigan's 14th Congressional District made an unsuccessful bid last year for a seat on the Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education. 

Among his goals are efforts to expand mobility in partnership with surrounding counties and job creation. 

"We want to make Detroit an economic empowerment zone so that international companies will choose Detroit as the base of their operations; Detroit as the city they develop and hire men and women," said Jones, who lives in northeast Detroit. 

Facial recognition ban promised

For Waters, 65, it's the fifth run for public office and second attempt since 2017 to secure an at-large seat on Detroit's council. 

The former state representative works as a virtual learning instructor and previously held jobs with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Children's Center in Detroit, which provides clinical services for children and families. 

Waters served the 4th District of the state House from November 2000 to 2006 and was the first African American minority floor leader from 2003 to 2006. 

She previously ran for District 1 in the Michigan State Senate in 2010, the U.S. House to represent the 14th Congressional District in 2012, and Michigan's 13th Congressional District in 2018. She was disqualified from the district race for failing to obtain enough valid petition signatures.

Former state Rep. Mary Waters

Waters is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, a former member of the UAW, a past vice chair of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission and former president of the Sister's Network, an African-American breast cancer survivor organization.

In 2010, Waters and her former campaign manager, Sam Riddle, pleaded guilty to allegations they conspired to bribe Southfield City Councilman William Lattimore in connection with the Southfield City Council's approval of the relocation of a pawn shop. Waters pleaded guilty in May 2010 to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false tax return and was sentenced later that year to one year of probation. Later efforts to withdraw her plea were rejected. 

If elected, Waters said she will fight for police department reforms including a ban on the use of facial recognition technology, and seek improved collaboration between the Detroit Health Department and Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Waters also said she believes that water is a human right and that all Detroit neighborhoods need an influx of economic development.

"I understand that public service is not about me. It is about those we represent," Waters said. "If we cannot remember that we are not worthy to serve. I will always serve the people with honor and integrity, and I will always place their needs ahead of my own."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_