Raquel Castañeda-López won't seek third term on Detroit's council

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Raquel Castañeda-López, an advocate for social equity and environmental justice and the first-ever Latina elected to Detroit's City Council, won't be seeking a third term.

The 39-year-old lifelong southwest Detroiter is nearing the end of her second, four-year stint representing voters in the city's District 6 and told The Detroit News when it concludes, she'll return to her advocacy roots. 

Raquel Castañeda-López

"I never imagined I'd be a council member ever in my life. I'm someone who grew up in poverty, a first-generation college student, not your typical politician at all," said an emotional Castañeda-López, calling the decision "bittersweet."

"It's been the honor of my life so far to be able to serve my home, my city, my community," she said. 

Castañeda-López, a social worker, first prevailed in a monumental 2013 race in which seven of nine council members were elected by district for the first time in nearly 100 years. The voting configuration had been adopted under a 2012 City Charter revision. 

She picked up nominating petitions in December as she debated whether to pursue a third term. But she said spending as many as 12 hours per day during the pandemic helping constituents connect with resources helped convince her to shift focus toward efforts that support racial justice and social equity.

"It's been a powerful personal and professional experience being the first (Latina) and being the only one," she said. "For so many people, I represent diversity in and of itself, the opportunity you can have when you have diverse voices at the table."

Castañeda-López said she's getting behind fellow lifelong Detroiter Gabriela Santiago-Romero in the District 6 race, whom she helped recruit. The University of Michigan alum also is a social worker, she noted. 

"It's about getting officials elected that lead with courage, with equity, access and inclusion," she said. "That's why I made this tough decision to step out of that role on council to recruit and support others."

Santiago-Romero, a policy and research director for We The People Michigan, told The News she submitted her nominating petitions Monday. The immigrant from Mexico also grew up in poverty in southwest Detroit, and said having Castañeda-López ask her to join the race was "like a dream come true."

"I'm passionate about people and especially my people and my community," Santiago-Romero said. "That's why I'm doing this. It's very personal. I don't think that it's fair that we have to navigate all of these barriers."

In her tenure, Castañeda-López has made language access a priority, ensuring city policies and services were translated for Spanish- and Arabic-speaking constituents. Her staff members also reflect the ethnicities of her diverse district, said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who originally recruited Castañeda-López to run.

"She really changed how people were seen and how people were represented at the local level," said Tlaib, D-Detroit. "She pushed to make sure that city government was inclusive of how diverse her district was."

Castañeda-López spearheaded a municipal ID card program for residents reluctant or ineligible to apply for state identification but wanted access to services. She also authored the resolution approved in 2017 that replaced the observance of Columbus Day in Detroit with Indigenous Peoples' Day.

On the environmental front, she crafted a long-debated ordinance approved in 2017 to regulate the handling of petroleum coke and other bulk solid materials to protect the health of Detroit residents. After a November 2019 dock collapse, Castañeda-López also sponsored the "Detroit River Protection Ordinance" to strengthen inspections and maintenance rules for businesses operating near the river's shoreline. She hopes to get the legislation passed before her term ends later this year. 

Castañeda-López and Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield banded together with grassroots and social justice organizations last year to develop the "Detroiters Bill of Rights," a set of community-driven recommendations aimed at making the city more inclusive for underrepresented citizens.

Branden Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Action, a group that fights for housing and economic justice, said Castañeda-López is a voice for working-class communities of color in all parts of the city. 

She's not one for holding down the status quo, added Snyder, who worked with the councilwoman on Detroit City Charter amendments to address public safety, water accessibility, housing and a number of other community-driven issues. 

"Raquel has been deep in the weeds of creating change," he said. 

Denzel McCampbell, a Detroit Charter commissioner and candidate for Detroit city clerk, added Castañeda-López brought community organizing to elected office and is consistently visible in her district. 

"Raquel embodies that," he said. "Residents are going to be left with a high bar for folks to achieve."

Castañeda-López often casts votes that counter the majority of her colleagues. This month, she was the sole member to vote no on the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, citing a desire to have $40 million from the police department's $327 million budget reassigned for social services.

Serving on council, she said, has been an honor but also "a very heavy burden."

"It's not an easy position, but thinking of all of the challenges presented to me from interactions with colleagues or in the community, it helped me grow tremendously."

Castañeda-López earlier this year pushed for workplace training for council members, arguing she and her team had experienced workplace hostility and intimidation since she took office in 2014. 

The request came more than a year after the city's Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity Department issued a report requested by President Brenda Jones after Castañeda-López raised the claims in 2019. The probe found there wasn't sufficient evidence of hostility or discrimination. 

District 6 resident Ru Shann Long said Castañeda-López has worked to unite neighborhoods and inspired her to get more involved.

"Before her, I don't think I ever had any contact with any council person," said Long, 67, a 60-year resident of southwest Detroit. "Her door has always been open, even though we might not agree."

Castañeda-López said she doesn't know what's next, but she won't go far. 

"I'm not disappearing. Detroit is my home," she said. "I'll always be committed to this city."

cferretti@detroitnews.com