Bankole: Challenge for next U.S. attorney in Detroit

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

It is anybody’s guess who would be selected as the next U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Many are waiting with bated breath to see who will replace Barbara McQuade, who resigned recently and soon will begin teaching at the University of Michigan Law School.

That individual when named by the president would be taking over an office that during the last eight years under the leadership of McQuade established an open-door policy and made civil rights and diversity among its top issues.

The person would be challenged to continue a legacy that not only reaffirmed the U.S. attorney’s office as an enforcement agency, but also was a moral force willing to openly discuss race and use the authority of the federal government in addressing inherent biases and discrimination that have had a dire impact on communities of color.

For example, during her tenure, McQuade created a civil rights unit, after becoming the first female federal law enforcement leader in the district that covers more than 6 million people. What will become of that unit is unclear.

Five years ago, McQuade and several community groups convened a “Where Do We Go From Here: Civil Rights in a Multi-cultural Society” symposium at Wayne State University Law School. The featured speaker, Thomas Perez, then assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, spoke passionately about protecting voting rights, the advantages of diversity and the need for the federal government to always be responsive to the challenges of communities of color who are likely to face all sorts of discriminatory practices.

At a farewell reception April 20 at the federal courthouse, Eric Doeh, an assistant U.S. attorney, spoke about McQuade’s penchant for diversity as one of the qualities he admires in her. Doeh said it is important to not forget that McQuade embraced diversity as a plus not a minus, noting that she hired African-Americans, Arab-Americans and other lawyers from underrepresented groups to work in her office.

Another speaker, Justice Richard Bernstein of the Michigan Supreme Court, talked about how McQuade avoided getting caught up in the trappings of the office by making herself very accessible to diverse communities and even attending community meetings in the basement of churches.

That level of openness, a model for serious community engagement, is typically not expected of the U.S. attorney. But McQuade understood that for her office to build trust and credibility in the community, it should not pretend to be engaged, but to actually reach out to diverse communities to hear their concerns and not wait until there is a problem.

McQuade took the federal government to places it was sometimes reluctant to go. Unwilling to be confined by officialdom, she pushed her office to be a non-threatening federal agency and a listening ear in the community.

That says a lot about the kinds of gatekeepers selected to defend the rights of all people and expand them, not limit those sacred rights.

That relationship was further exemplified by the attendance at the reception of Damon Keith, a senior judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Denise Page Hood, the chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan, other federal court judges, lawyers and community leaders.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, said: “Barbara McQuade has established a significant relationship with a number of groups in this community. We had been moving in the right direction of civil and human rights. We must not reduce our focus on protecting the rights of all Americans. Civil rights were viewed as a priority during the past eight years. ... We in Detroit have the right and responsibility to insist upon that same level of sensitivity and involvement in our community.”

It is true that McQuade’s successor will possibly have a different approach for the office, what its priorities will be and whether it will limit its community engagement. But the challenges remain the same.

“You can’t just lock everybody up. There also needs to be programs that the U.S. attorney’s office connects with that prevent or deter such activity before it begins. The only way to do that is to be involved in the community in which you serve,” Anthony said.

Asked why she created the first-ever civil rights unit in the U.S. attorney’s office, McQuade said: “We live in a diverse community but we find that civil rights are sometimes violated. If we want to attract population to Michigan, we should be a welcoming beacon. The best way to send a message that people are welcome here is by working to protect the rights of everyone.”

It was instructive to hear speaker after speaker at the reception commend McQuade’s humility. One speaker specifically described how she would choose to sit at the back during funerals of fallen officers, drive herself to official functions and travel without an entourage.

McQuade was self-confident, never flaunted her position and was accessible. She always credited her staff for the successes registered under her tenure.

Robert Gates, the respected former secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, underscored that kind of leadership in a 2007 commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Self-confidence is still another quality of leadership. Not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time. Rather, it is the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success,” Gates said.

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.