Detroit's Last White City Council Member

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Courtesy Sheila Cockrel

Sheila Murphy Cockrel, a member of the Detroit city council, has never been afraid to swim against the tide. She opposed proposals to create "Africa Town," a district exclusively for black-owned businesses in the heart of downtown. She regularly sparred with the city's former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in 2008 amid enormous legal problems. Just last month, she drew headlines for abruptly leaving the council's chambers to protest a rushed measure, backed by Christian conservatives, to restrict alcohol sales at Detroit's strip clubs. "It was an act of democracy to walk out and not let the process be hijacked by people with a narrow interest," she said later.

But in some ways, Cockrel is a relic of Detroit's past. She is the only white member of the city council and, when her term ends in late December, she could well be its last. Even though she is personally popular, she is leaving the council partly because she is tired of the scandals that have rocked the city lately. Her departure is a significant moment in the history of Detroit, the largest majority-black city in America. In the 1950s, when Detroit's population reached its 2 million peak, nearly 1.6 million white people lived here. In 1990, though whites were still represented in several major elected posts, they comprised only about 20% of the population. Now, whites make up barely 8% of the city's estimated 912,000 residents.

Demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute projects that whites may account for only 5% of Detroit's population by 2020. If those trends persist, it is unlikely that Detroit will ever again elect a white person to a major citywide post. But Cockrel, 63, may try to buck that trend. She is now studying whether she has the kind of crossover appeal to win a congressional seat out of Detroit.

Cockrel is aware that much of her potential bid's appeal and challenge lies in her personal narrative. She grew up in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s — a period when, she recalls, it was populated largely with Irish and Maltese immigrants as well as Puerto Ricans. Her parents managed a soup kitchen. As a student at Wayne State University in the late 1960s, she had a front-row seat to one of the defining moments in Detroit's history: the 1967 riots — or "rebellion," as she recalls it. On the morning of July 23 of that year, Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood, triggering nearly a week of mayhem in which 43 people died. Hundreds of buildings across the city burned. Military tanks rolled through the streets. "It was horrifying to sit on your front porch, feeling completely impotent," Cockrel recalled one recent afternoon. She defied her parents and left their home to help move many of the injured to hospitals. Within months, many whites fled Detroit — accelerating an exodus to the suburbs that had begun with the post–World War II auto-industry boom. But Cockrel's family stayed.

Much of Cockrel's attention shifted to various social-justice causes, particularly the fight against police brutality. That's how she met Ken Cockrel Sr., an African-American attorney whom she eventually married. In the early 1970s, the couple supported the efforts of Detroit's first black mayor, Coleman Young, to integrate the city's police force. That led to the appointment of Detroit's first black police chief and, eventually, the suspension of a unit known for harassing young black men. Cockrel helped her husband win a city-council seat, and he was viewed as a leading potential successor to Young. But in 1989, Ken had a heart attack and died. For a while, Sheila stayed home to care for her young daughter. Four years later, she successfully ran for a city-council seat of her own, hoping to be an advocate for the kind of policies her husband had championed, like making literacy classes mandatory for all pregnant teenagers. "That, in our mind, was the way you're going to create opportunities for people," she says.

Cockrel quickly became known as one of the council's most astute political observers and best-prepared members. She regularly sparred with a fellow city councilmember, Monica Conyers — wife of Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. — who recently pleaded guilty to bribery charges. She's also had her differences with the current city-council president — Ken Cockrel Jr., her own stepson. He recently called her walkout from the city council's chambers during the strip-club debate "the height of irresponsibility" and said it "shows a high level of disrespect for the people that put elected officials in office."

Cockrel says race and ethnicity did not factor into her decision to leave Detroit's city council. Ultimately, she says, residents will elect "people they believe are authentically going to represent their interests — and get their lights on." But race remains an unavoidable theme in this region's narrative. Some blacks have called Cockrel a racist, despite her background, while whites have questioned her racial authenticity. During a dinner at a downtown Cuban restaurant recently, a white suburbanite told her, "You're one of my black friends." Cockrel wasn't amused.

In November, voters elected Dave Bing, the steel magnate and former NBA star, and five new city councilmembers. They face daunting challenges, starting with a budget deficit of at least $275 million and a nearly 30% unemployment rate. Detroit also needs to attract and retain a sizable middle class — of any hue — which is difficult given the sorry state of schools, public security and business. The situation is so dire, the state of Michigan may seize control of Detroit in the coming months. "With the kind of challenges the city is going to face," Cockrel says, "I can make a better contribution not at that table but from another place."

Officially, Cockrel says she will teach public policy at Wayne State University. But many political observers expect her to be a formidable candidate for the congressional seat currently held by Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat and the former mayor's mother. Kilpatrick is vulnerable, observers say, mainly because of her son's persistent legal problems. Still, if Cockrel decides to run for the 13th congressional district seat, she will face an uphill battle: the district was gerrymandered mainly to ensure an African-American majority.

She says she may make up her mind in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, she is carefully planning the curriculum for her Wayne State classes and working on a book exploring Detroit's history and future. "I'm not interested in this sort of blind optimism," she said recently when asked to consider what's needed to revive Detroit. Government's fundamental functions must be reconsidered, she said, so citizens can regain confidence that it will provide basic services. She added, "There's huge potential here."