Thompson: Detroit Caucus working in unity
In the past it was easy to see political fractures in Lansing of the Detroit Caucus: The 15 Democratic members who represent the city in the state Legislature. Group members hardly spoke with one voice and it was difficult to decipher what issues they were working on together as a group.
That explained why past mayors and other city stakeholders would often bypass the caucus and go straight to Lansing to negotiate deals directly.
But according to state Rep. Brian Banks, chairman of the Detroit caucus, it is a new day.
“The Detroit Caucus is a group of progressive, professional, experienced, energetic legislators who bring a diverse wealth of experience to the Legislature. We have a very good working relationship,” said Banks, who represents northeast Detroit, Harper Woods and other areas on the city’s east side. “We are viewed as the biggest voting bloc, and the caucus that can assist in getting the legislation passed or the caucus who can cause legislation to fail.
“We have stood united on several major issues, thus, continuing to raise our legitimacy.”
One issue uniting the group has been their opposition to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s D-Insurance proposal, which they believe offers Detroiters less options in insurance benefits compared to the rest of the state. Even though state Sen. Virgil Smith, a caucus member who later became ensnarled in a criminal investigation, sponsored the mayor’s plan, a majority of his caucus members disagreed on the plan’s approach to addressing insurance rates.
“It is our position that we want to provide Detroit residents with lower auto insurance rates with the same level of benefits and consumer protections as our neighboring community,” Banks said. “We believe that Detroiters should not have to comprise and accept a second tier insurance plan just to get a promise of lower auto rates.”
Duggan invited members of the caucus to the Manoogian Mansion on March 14 for breakfast to preview the plan. For the group the invitation did not lead to an automatic endorsement of the plan. Banks said members listened and came to their own conclusions as a body.
“The issue of redlining has been raised for years, and it’s time to address that issue and address it correctly,” Banks explained of the group’s decisions. “Let’s stop allowing auto insurance companies to use zip codes, credit scores, education and occupations as the factors which make up our auto rates. Let’s start holding insurance companies accountable.”
John Roach, Duggan’s communication chief, said the mayor has a professional relationship with the caucus that is centered on working constructively to solve problems, and that a working group involving Banks has been formed to look at lowering auto rates.
Roach said the mayor’s D-Insurance plan, “which is actuarially sound estimates a savings of 20-33 percent on auto insurance premium for Detroit residents.”
Banks said he hopes that the working group will “try to come up with a solution that will provide rate reduction, all the while giving citizens the same level of consumer protections and benefits.”
Banks said a working relationship with the mayor is equally important.
“Mayor Duggan understands that in addition to supporting those legislative issues that he puts forth, we as a caucus have a constituency that we were elected by and have to address their concerns regarding legislation. As a result, there may be some issues that we are on the opposite side of,” Banks said.
State Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, who describes himself as a moderate Republican, said he stands with the Detroit caucus on the insurance issue.
“What Detroit needs is not a lesser insurance. What the city needs is a change in how insurance companies redline areas and the way they spread risks,” Callton said. “If these changes take place there would be significant reduction.”
Callton said the caucus is a “good group of people and I always look forward to working with them. I think we are allies in the fight to make Michigan great, and we cannot have a great state without a great city like Detroit.”
Another Republican, state Rep. Mike McCready of Bloomfield Hills, said the caucus is a force to reckon with in Lansing.
“They seem to be working together collectively and reaching across the aisle on issues,” McCready said. “We have very good dialogue.”
State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a caucus member who represents northwest Detroit, said unity is the glue that keeps the group together.
“We are in a position to make much greater impact than many caucuses in previous years,” Dagnogo said. “Given the 2016 election, it is incumbent on both the caucus and the mayor to work toward establishing a strong legislative agenda and priorities.”
She said Detroiters have an affinity for what she calls “Colemanesque leadership,” referring to former Mayor Coleman A. Young. “However, they must realize that pretending to fight without strategy really is not Coleman at all,” Dagnogo said.
Another issue in the Legislature — road funding — is also testing the caucus’ political mettle, with members insisting that plan to raise $600 million for roads should not come at the expense of Detroit residents.
“Fixing our roads is the No. 1 priority for the Detroit caucus,” Banks said. “But the roads plan that we will support must be a plan that is responsible, obtainable and a permanent solution to fix and maintain our roads without doing greater harm to our residents.”
Detroit labor leader Al Garrett, the head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, said he’s impressed that the Detroit legislators are working in unity.
“I think with the current dynamics in Lansing — in terms of tea party members versus regular Republicans — it gives them leverage to advocate for things in Detroit, and there is an opportunity for them to have greater influence in the Democratic caucus,” Garrett said.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.