Detroit City Council newcomers say turnover signals need for change

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council will soon have six new faces around its nine-seat table, and several say they stand ready to deliver the change Detroit voters are looking for. 

Coleman A. Young II, the son of Detroit's first Black mayor, was the top vote-getter in the race for two citywide council seats. He told The Detroit News Wednesday that he's honored that he will be able to serve in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, a building that bears his late father's name.

"For the people of Detroit to put their trust in me is amazing," Young said. "But now it's time to do our jobs."  

The turnover on Detroit's council marks the most the city has seen since five new members were elected amid Detroit's bankruptcy in 2013. 

Coleman A. 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. Young earned the most votes in the at-large race in Tuesday's general election.

Heading into Election Day, the council was guaranteed at least four new members due to the high-profile resignations this year of Gabe Leland and Andre Spivey, who both pleaded guilty to crimes. Meanwhile, Council President Brenda Jones and member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez opted not to seek new terms.

Two others fell short Tuesday in their battle to retain seats; First-term Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. and at-large Councilwoman Janee Ayers, who is entangled in a federal corruption probe.

Karen Dumas, a former top aide to mayors Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing, said "it remains to be seen" whether two-thirds of the council being new is a good thing or not.

"Certainly, it brings new energy, new vision, and hopefully new challenges to the status quo," Dumas told The Detroit News. "There will be a learning curve. What we don't know is the allegiances of the people who are newly-elected."

Besides Young, the council's other at-large seat will be held by former state Rep. Mary Waters. District 2 will be represented by political newcomer Angela Calloway; community advocate Latisha Johnson takes over in District 4; Gabriela Santiago-Romero will lead District 6; and former state Rep. Fred Durhal III prevailed in District 7.

James Tate, who represents District 1, will become the council's most senior member. District 3 Councilman Scott Benson and Mary Sheffield, who represents District 5, were both uncontested Tuesday in their respective bids for a third term. 

Next year's council will include a mix of veteran lawmakers and first-time officeholders. 

Dumas said the turnover, and the unseen dynamic of the newly-elected group, makes it tough to project how the incoming council will work with Mayor Mike Duggan, who was reelected Tuesday to a third term. 

Duggan, during his Tuesday night victory speech, referenced the newcomers and said he would be "congratulating and sitting down with each of them to hear their vision for the city."

The 2014 Detroit City Council, which came in with Duggan, had five new members: Castaneda-Lopez, Benson, Leland, Sheffield and George Cushingberry Jr. 

The councils elected in 2005 and 2009 also swept in five new members. November 1985 was the last time that all nine members of Detroit City Council ran for, and won, reelection. 

"We have these hopes every time we have new elected officials, but by the end of their term, we're back at square one," Dumas said

Both of the council's at-large representatives will be new to Detroit's council, but not to politics. 

Young, 38, challenged Duggan in the 2017 mayoral race. Prior to that, he served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2005 to 2010 and two terms in the state Senate from 2011 to 2018. 

Young said Wednesday that he expects the new council to have a "very short honeymoon period."

He said he will use his platform to push for Detroiters to vaccinate against COVID-19. He wants to hire more police investigators, but also hire enough officers that some can walk the beat and staff mini-police stations, he said. 

"I want to close the gap between Detroit's promise and its reality," Young added. 

Waters declined an interview Wednesday with The News through her friend Sam Riddle.

Waters, 65, served the 4th District of the state House from November 2000 to 2006. Tuesday was her second attempt since 2017 to secure an at-large seat on Detroit's council. 

Detroit City Council-At-Large candidate Mary Waters talks with former council member Nick Hood, III, at his house on the east side of Detroit on Sept. 28, 2021. Waters prevailed Tuesday in securing one of two at-large seats.

The former state representative 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. 

She 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.

In 2010, Waters and Riddle, her former campaign manager, 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 to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false tax return and was sentenced to one year of probation. Later efforts to withdraw her plea were rejected.

Tax records show Waters owes about $28,300 in back property taxes and late fees. She owes another $3,800 in campaign debt from 2013, records show.

"Keeping this property has been an overwhelming struggle," Waters recently said in a statement about her property tax debt.

Waters noted she was working out a payment arrangement with the Wayne County Treasurer's Office and that she's no different than thousands of struggling Detroiters. 

Ayers last week held her first public event since August FBI raids at her and Benson's homes, the homes of their chiefs of staff and City Hall in connection with a corruption probe tied to municipal towing and bribery.

Ayers, Benson and their staffers have not been charged with wrongdoing. 

Ayers, who primarily campaigned for her second term with billboard advertisements and social media posts, acknowledged her defeat in a Wednesday Facebook post. 

"We didn't win, but I saw the dedication and spirit of Detroiters in action during this election," Ayers wrote. "I am humbled by your support and promise to keep fighting for Detroit."

In the biggest council upset Tuesday, Calloway, a first-time candidate, took down McCalister, earning 55% of the vote to McCalister's 44%, according to unofficial results.

Calloway did not respond to The News' request for an interview on Wednesday. But she'd insisted from the start that she would win the race.

On Tuesday, she said she visited each District 2 polling site three times. Her campaign focused on reaching senior citizens and encouraging the woman vote, she said. 

McCalister declined to comment Wednesday on the outcome of the race, saying only: "I do not want to comment on new personnel which has not had the opportunity to be seated on the honorable Detroit City Council."

McCalister, 67, had been running for city council races since 2005, when he was a write-in. After runs for citywide seats in 2009 and 2013, McCalister ran for the District 2 seat in 2017 and won.

In District 4, Johnson bested M.L. Elrick by a lopsided margin, 61% to 39%.

Johnson, who will represent the city's far east side, said a council with six new members is a sign from the community that it wanted change at City Hall.

"This is what our community deserved, and it's what our community asked for," she said. 

Johnson said that when running to join a body where two members, Leland and Spivey, had resigned and two others, Ayers and Benson, are under a cloud of suspicion, "I always had a hope of changing the perception of City Council."

Then-Detroit City Council 4th District candidate Latisha Johnson (right) talks with Lisa Hanson (center) and Cookie Moore (left) during a meet and greet on Oct. 8, 2021. Johnson won Tuesday's general election, earning about 61% of the vote.

She believes six new faces will accomplish that. 

"It speaks volumes," Johnson said. "People talk about wanting to go back to electing city council at-large. This shows we don't need to do that. The community needs to speak up and choose the right people to represent them."

Along with District 4, District 6 and District 7 also were guaranteed new representation.

That it will get from Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who beat rival Hector Santiago by 74% to 25%. Santiago-Romero, 29, attributed that victory to hard work. 

With only two candidates in the southwest Detroit district race, there was no August primary. The two, she said, had been campaigning for more than six months by Election Day.

"We've been door-knocking since April," said Santiago-Romero, adding she planned to spend Wednesday thanking supporters and catching up on rest. "I've had seven days off in the last seven months.'

Santiago-Romero sees "improvement of basic city services" as a top priority. She said throughout the campaign that the public's disinterest in elections is tied to the belief that city government cannot help them. 

"I'm going to organize with residents to get our needs met," Santiago-Romero said. 

Santiago-Romero had the backing of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and outgoing councilwoman Castaneda-Lopez, who was the first Hispanic member of Detroit City Council. Santiago-Romero will be the second. 

District 7 was the closest council race, with only 59 votes separating Fred Durhal III, 37, from Regina Ross, 53. 

On Election Day Durhal's father, a former state representative, chauffeured him to polling sites across the district.

"It feels gratifying and exhausting," Durhal said Wednesday. "My heart was beating a million times per second. I was up, then I was down."

In the end he was up, by the slimmest of margins.

Detroit City Council candidate Fred Durhal III looks for the next house while canvassing in Detroit on Oct. 9, 2021. Durhal, a former state representative, won the District 7 race on Tuesday by 59 votes.

"No Durhal has ever held municipal office," he noted. 

Ross did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. It's unclear whether she intends to challenge the outcome of the race. 

Detroit's council recently approved resolutions noting the certified winners of the races in Districts 4 and 7 will be sworn in "no sooner than Dec. 1," and ahead of January, when the rest of the new council members take office. 

Durhal said that he and his team are finalizing a 90-day agenda for the new year. He said fighting illegal dumping will be a big part of it. He said he's already identified 60 problematic sites. 

"On the first day, I'm going to be on the phone," Durhal said. "It'll be different when I'm making that call as the councilman."