Union leader, retired exec divide Detroit council
Detroit — The City Council is poised to try again Tuesday to select between a union leader and a retired Chrysler Corp. executive to fill an at-large vacancy on the panel.
Janee Ayers, recording secretary for the UNITE HERE! Local 24 that represents about 6,000 hospitality workers, wants to build career opportunities and city pride. Debra T. Walker, with strong community ties and cost-cutting expertise, said she looks to be "challenged and to challenge the status quo."
They emerged last week from a field of 16 chosen by council members and are scheduled to face another round of interviews after they failed to gain six of the council's eight votes. It's unclear what steps will be taken if neither candidate gets a super-majority Tuesday.
Among the issues for the $76,911-a-year position is their financial backgrounds. In the past month, the city has emerged from bankruptcy with the mayor and council running the city again — but under state financial oversight.
Walker, 61, is paying off tens of thousands of dollars in federal tax liens, according to a records search, a problem she acknowledged to The Detroit News. She had a federal tax debt as high as $39,195 in 2010 and had a more than $2,000 payment issue with Riverfront Apartments in 2006-08, according to the records search.
Walker said she fell behind on income tax payments and arranged a payment plan with the Internal Revenue Service. On Monday, Walker said she did not know the specific remaining balance, but said the payment plan will be in place for about two more years.
During the same period, Walker said she fell behind on rent at the Riverfront Apartments. She then worked out an agreement to leave for a more affordable flat in Corktown and repaid the two months of back rent.
"I came upon challenging times, but I never ran away from it," Walker told The News.
Ayers, 33, had two payment issues — a nearly $1,300 tab with the National Check Bureau Inc. in 2005 and a roughly $2,500 amount with Discover Bank in 2003, according to a records search. More information was not available because courts were closed Monday for a holiday.
Ayers did not return calls Monday.
Some council members have had financial troubles in recent years. President Pro Tem George Cushingberry defaulted on a home mortgage in 2006, former council President Charles Pugh lost a home through foreclosure in the past few years and ex-council member Kwame Kenyatta walked away from his house during the 2008 recession.
The debate has stirred questions about how deeply members should probe into candidates' backgrounds. David Whitaker, director of the council's Legislative Policy Division, told members during voting last week that there had been discussion about having the police department conduct background checks.
Council members Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, Scott Benson, George Cushingberry, Gabe Leland and Mary Sheffield rejected the idea. "None of us had to go through a background check," Castaneda-Lopez said. "Not that I think it's not relevant ... but I do think it's an unfair burden to place on candidates this far along in the process."
Several rounds of voting last week could not resolve a 5-3 split on council. Ayers was favored by President Brenda Jones, Cushingberry, Sheffield, Leland and Benson. Castaneda-Lopez, James Tate and Andre Spivey cast their votes for Walker.
Another impasse is possible, Sheffield said. If it happens, the council has to be ready to figure out its next steps, she said.
"I want the best for the body and the citizens of Detroit," Sheffield said. "I also don't want to belabor the process."
Ayers says she hopes council members will reflect on her accomplishments.
"I will let my work speak for itself," she said. "You've seen me before, you know what I stand for and that's what I'm relying on."
Ayers, a Renaissance High School graduate, earned a political science degree from Bowling Green State University, with minors in communications and ethnic studies.
In a separate role, Ayers in 2013 became the youngest vice president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, helping represent more than 100,000 people.
"Being entrusted to make decisions that affect people's livelihood, that's huge. I don't take that lightly," Ayers said.
The west side resident comes from a family of educators and spent time teaching at-risk students at Detroit's former Millennium High School.
Ayers, who worked for Detroit's recreation department as a teenager and returned there after college, said sustaining recreation offerings and other community services are vital.
"I want to see us emerge from bankruptcy with the ability to provide good services to people because they deserve it," she said.
Walker, a Corktown resident, said she's prepared for the interview, and hopes the impasse will be resolved.
Regardless of the outcome, Walker said if the council needs help in the community "I'm here."
Walker grew up in a family engaged with community block clubs, church and schools.
Among her service work, the breast cancer survivor said she worked with the former Michigan Cancer Foundation on awareness efforts and to create a support group for African-American women with cancer and their families.
Walker, a Cass Technical High School graduate, earned an English degree from Wayne State University and studied liberal arts at Olivet College.
A self-described "workaholic," Walker held a series of jobs while caring for her children and began her career at Chrysler as a contracted secretary.
She later ascended to management and executive roles. A key responsibility was to identify cost-reduction initiatives and develop and promote minority businesses. "I understand lean thinking and lean processes," she said.
When asked if his vote for Ayers could be swayed, Leland said he's hoping to learn more about each candidate and will keep "a very open mind."
The two finalists surprised political observers since the pool of contenders featured two former state representatives, a Wayne County commissioner and an ex-judge. Consultant Eric Foster says the move may pay off, but it risks upsetting the positive tone during the past couple of years.
"It's a very curious path to go down," he said.
Ernest Johnson, a community activist and former Wayne County aide, said Walker and Ayers are qualified candidates.
"I think both of these are going to get in there, roll up their sleeves and work," he said.