Sheffield announces the end of her time on council. Is it the beginning of her run for mayor?
All evidence points to a big showing in 2025
Via @marysheffield on Instagram
There is a strict rule at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center about public display of the mayoral seal. There are a few of them — I’d say maybe more than three, less than ten — that affix to the front of lecterns at press conferences, and the rule is that it’s only to be affixed if the mayor of Detroit due to speak at the conference. Other elected officials — city clerk, city council, charter commission, and so forth — cannot affix the mayoral seal during their own press conferences, unless the mayor is on the bill.
As chief storyteller, I worked in the same department — Media Services — that handled the logistics of press conferences (that’s a nice way of saying the hard labor of setting up a stage and lectern, wiring microphones and speakers, and taking other stage direction from Communications, the department people think I worked in) and was the keeper of the seals. One day, we got a call from Councilwoman Mary Sheffield’s office about a stage setup outside the Spirit of Detroit statue. Sheffield’s team had a time, date and run of show, and specifically called for the mayoral seal to be used on the lectern since Mayor Mike Duggan, they say, would be there. (UPDATE: More clarification, per comment from Sheffield and further communication with a Media Services employee present this day, below.)
And so, per usual, our guys in Media Services set up the stage. Gaffe tape, hand carts, cords everywhere, everyone trying not to trip over each other. Sheffield’s press conference was in the afternoon. Media were invited, as well as District 5 constituents and anyone else who wanted to attend. One question: Was the mayor actually going to be there?
Duggan wasn’t there. And it wasn’t that he skipped or ignored it. Sheffield’s event was not on his schedule, because Duggan’s team on the 11th floor hadn’t been contacted about the event. Duggan was somewhere else — likely a different presser — but not due to be in front of the Spirit that afternoon.
After the conference, we got a…rather stern, let’s say…call from the 11th floor about setting up a lectern with the mayoral seal when the mayor wasn’t going to be there, and that in the future, Media Services should cross-check with Communications about council or other elected official requests for the seal if they say the mayor is present. So why would Sheffield’s office say the mayor was there?
Easy. The media was invited — which means there are now a good handful of available photos of Sheffield, in civic duty, standing behind a podium that says “Official Seal of the Mayor of the City of Detroit.” She looks mayoral.
The case for the councilwoman
Sheffield, who is running unopposed to repeat another term representing District 5, posted to her Instagram this week that this would be her final term — presuming she wins in November. (Hey, anything could happen!) But while some are seeing it as the near-end of a political career, I see the beginning of a 2025 campaign for mayor.
Anyone who’s watched Sheffield’s moves over her eight-year term in council has seen she’s been intimating ambitions for something more. In a city where anyone with a notable surname can be dismissed just for having one, Sheffield has worked to carve her own identity and career apart from her politically active family. (There may be something more to be said about how this can be harder for women in local politics and why that is, but…another time.) And she’s stayed the course while doing so.
Detroit’s council will look radically different by the fall as current incumbents choose not to seek re-election or resign completely — hello, Gabe. If District 1’s James Tate wins his spot again, Sheffield will tie with District 3’s Scott Benson as the most senior councilperson. But Sheffield, thanks to some very public moves late in her second term (maybe even impromptu photo shoots like I described above…), arguably has an increasing visibility across districts that neither Benson or Tate has.
I suspect those moves, which we’ll get into in just a sec, were intentional. I heard a tidbit a few years back that Sheffield once conducted an informal survey of her recognizance across the city, and the results showed that while she was known in District 5, she wasn’t as popular or known outside there. So, what do you do to change that? Make yourself known.
It’s worth noting that no Detroit councilperson in modern history has ever moved from the 13th floor of CAYMC to the 11th by way of election. (Ken Cockrel Jr., who briefly served as mayor after serving as council president, was not elected — that’s the key.) But my guess is before that Sheffield declared this would be her last term at council, she was studying the response to challenges to Duggan’s seat first. I’m guessing. Not to hype up mY foRmeR boSS, but Anthony Adams’ campaign announcement landed with a thud, Tom Barrow doesn’t even go here, and there hasn’t been the slightest bit of curiosity over any of the other declared candidates. Had there been another candidate that would have had some buzz, that would have been an opportune time for Sheffield to toss in her hat and create a hot, three-candidate race. But since it seems like there wasn’t any strong public opposition for Duggan to put forth a third term, my guess is Sheffield is waiting for a clearer path and a safer bet in 2025.
Being the anti-Duggan
Something that’s kept my eyebrow raised about Sheffield’s second term is an attempted allegiance with left-leaning figures and supporting policy reflective of them. I’ll be the first to admit that because of her family’s role in not just local politics but also the church, “progressive” is a label I’m hesitant to attach to the councilwoman. The Black church at large may believe in principles that align with progressive policy, such as helping the poor and advocacy for people of color, but at large the church is still very conservative with other issues that Detroit has had to wrestle with in recent years — I’m thinking big things like marijuana use, and small (in the city) things like policies affecting LGBTQ+ residents. I also know kids aren’t their parents, and Sheffield could very well be one of those.
But I also know that during eight years of moderate Duggan, the voices of firmly leftist Detroiters have only gotten louder, and progressive ideals have spread among those who might have been classified as moderate years before the likes of Bernie Sanders — who Sheffield endorsed at a time when Duggan was firmly for Joe Biden — and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have come to national prominence. A certain subset of Detroiters are demanding progressive action from their elected officials. A lot of that subset lives in District 5, where Woodbridge, Midtown, Lafayette Park, Islandview, and some other lefty pockets of Detroit happen to be.
Leftist Detroiters only begrudgingly accept Duggan — I know this based on bar conversations before working for him, and my inboxes after. I get the sense that for white Detroiters especially, Mike Duggan is the embodiment of the dad they left in the suburbs when they came to live in the city. “But isn’t Detroit majority Black?” you might ask. Well, yeah, it is — but younger Black Detroiters are also catching this wave. It’s no accident that Bernie won Michigan in 2016 — who do you think helped fuel that vote? Ann Arbor alone?
I think Sheffield knows there’s smoke here, which is why I suspect some of her recent actions were meant to appeal to both white and Black progressives. The People’s Bills package that Sheffield first floated in 2018 was a clear shot to the heart of both crowds. In that package, Sheffield wanted to lower parking fines (for cash-strapped millennials maybe?), increase advocacy for the homeless, boost hiring rates of Detroiters for large construction projects, address cash bail disparities (which became a cornerstone of now-Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit’s campaign), and, the big ones: Redefine “affordable” housing in Detroit and institute an income-based water affordability plan. Affordable housing and water shutoffs are the loudest complaints progressives have for the mayor. (I apologize to anyone who emailed me asking if they can get a meeting with him to discuss this.) I expect Sheffield will continue building upon this soapbox in the years forward.
If anyone’s noticed, though, Sheffield has also been very vocal about directives coming from the mayor’s office, with special attention paid to the Land Bank. Often in tandem with Raquel Castenada-Lopez, she has dissented from council majority on several votes on executive-branch proposals. She called for a congressional probe into activity in the Land Bank. She is vocal in her opposition to facial-recognition software. And she has needled and name-checked the mayor on all of the above, and almost anything else. It’s clear Sheffield has been making herself the loudest in the room on the hottest-button issues, and with good reasons.
Sheffield can’t dethrone Duggan now, but she will continue to stir public sentiment against him in the next four years, effectively setting a scene for Detroiters to elect a new, young, Black female progressive after 12 years of a moderate white male boomer.
Detroit’s need for a Black woman mayor
Erma Henderson would not only have been the first Black woman mayor of Detroit, but the first in modern history to move from council seat to mayor’s office. That didn’t happen, and now all we have is a bunch of things named after her.
Folks have said for years, and I agree and I can bet Mayor Duggan would too, that Detroit is long overdue for a woman in the mayor’s office, and preferably a Black woman to represent a majority-Black city. And we’ve got a few options.
There are several past and present state representatives with legislative experience — I’m thinking Leslie Love or Stephanie Young (a former co-worker, full disclosure). I would not be surprised if Cynthia Johnson, who was a perennial candidate for literally everything prior to finally winning a House seat, capitalizes on her recent fame to make a go of it. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo…Lord, have mercy. Chile…let’s just say I won’t be surprised if she’s plotting on something. (That whole situation with the missing house, but also her affiliation with offender Brian Banks just gives me a hell of a lot of pause.) And that’s before you get into Black women leaders in nonprofits and corporations — Portia Roberson, Carla Walker-Miller, even one-time candidate Liza Howze. (Even though I am discussing Black women here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that State Rep. Stephanie Chang isn’t just as qualified, and, just for the shock value, I would not be surprised if Rashida Tlaib took a shot.)
Here lies Sheffield’s opportunity to achieve what Henderson couldn’t. In 2025, she will have had 12 years of political experience, eight of which are in Detroit’s largest district. But Detroit’s population will not only look like her, but think like her, too: She’ll be a millennial in a city full of millennials, all of whom will have aged out of the novelty of being a millennial and should be settled into whatever our real lives look like: Homeownership (maybe), families, concern for civic duty, and an inherent knowledge of Detroit that can only come from three or more decades of living there.
If not Sheffield, then who?
We have to think now about who’s going to be mayor in 2025. Mayor Duggan’s third term will be something of a victory lap, as policies and programs put into place in the first term come to full fruition in the years ahead. And then he’s done. Having worked for him, I can say confidently that Duggan does not want to go down as the white savior of Detroit, but someone who saw problems and wanted to try to fix them. And if he had higher ambitions beyond Detroit mayor — note he’s not the governor or a Biden appointee, despite years of rumors that we all knew were false — then it would have been communicated by now.
Representation matters, and I can certainly imagine a scenario — God forbid, please God forbid — where M.L. Elrick wins District 4 this year and goes for the mayor’s seat four years later. (It was long rumored, and I believe it, that this was Charles Pugh’s plan. Call it the Fox 2-to-public-office pipeline.) Is that what y’all want? Another white guy to be mayor?
Detroit media will certainly plant the seed that Dan Gilbert will try for the top spot. You already know some reporter (*cough*at Crain’s*cough*) will tack that question on to the end of a Q-and-A just so we can all run for it. And then I imagine a scenario where he measures public response and goes for it.
Quick reminder that Kwame can’t hold any local office until 2033, so get that idea out your head now.
Shri Thanedar very easily became a state representative and I will never forgive the eastside for letting that happen. With this artificial confidence, what’s stopping him from going for CAYMC? And has anyone checked on his progress, lately? What exactly is he doing in Lansing?
I’d personally want a mayor with experience, and this comes strictly from having worked for one. I love Gen Z and Whitney was speaking facts when she believed in the children and teaching them well and all that shit, but I’m going to need someone with back pain and heartburn to get on this ride.
Now and not later is the time to coalesce behind a candidate with the right skills and experience. And I’m not even saying Sheffield is the slam-dunk choice. I’m just saying, choose now before we have regrets later.
Bits and bobs
After I wrote about (soon-to-be-former?) Rep. Jewell Jones’ arrest last month, a few folks in Lansing reached out to me privately about the Michigan Dems’ worries about how to handle this situation, which only got worse when they learned via MIRS that a woman with her pants down was in the state rep’s vanity-plated truck on the day of that arrest. I’ve heard that they’ve been well aware of Jones’ antics for some time now and are scrambling to find a path forward while saving face. My guess is he will be asked to resign. But if you have some more insights on this — or anything! — please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your identity is safe with me.
I have lots of thoughts about the changes going on in the mayor’s communications department — specifically, the response to Vickie Thomas’ appointment as communications director and not the appointment itself. Full disclosure, Thomas is a legend and more than qualified for the job, so I have no criticism there. But in my next post (I started writing that first, but then this Sheffield thing took over my brain), I’ll be going long on why Detroit journalists seem to love to wallow in misery and despair when an announcement like this happens.
I was more than happy to see that El Club named Lauren “Lo” McGrier as general manager, bringing a Black woman to the forefront of Detroit nightlife and entertainment just as the world starts to open back up. We had interviewed McGrier for The Neighborhoods where she spoke at length about the lack of opportunities for women in local entertainment, and it’s one of my favorite things I’d done while running the site.
Reader shout-outs to Shaffwan Ahmed, who correctly pointed out that a young woman I mentioned in my last post is actually Bangladeshi and not Arab-American (my deepest apologies); and to Ryan Michael Dinkgrave for correcting me on some details about the film “Gran Torino” in that same post.
I don’t want to talk about just politics, either! Please give more more ideas you think we should talk about. And thanks to all the subscribers who have signed up so far.
UPDATE, 1:50 p.m.: Sheffield posted on my Facebook page “this is incorrect” after I posted this, and reached out via Facebook Messenger. First, she said I said she was stepping down, but I didn’t say that. Sheffield then noted that “the idea that I intentionally wanted the mayors seals[sic] for a press conference is ridiculous” and noted that she advocated for a council seal to be used for press conferences. Sheffield asked if I would give her my number via Facebook Messenger, which I attempted to do but was blocked. Since I’ve had Sheffield’s number since at least 2017, I texted her anyway and am awaiting response.
I then spoke with a former co-worker of mine who still works in Media Services and coordinated not just the event I described, but several of Sheffield’s events. They also recall Sheffield’s team requesting the mayor’s seal, and recall the friction after the event when it turned out the mayor wasn’t present. The event in question, they say, had participants chanting “Mayor Sheffield” and that “she never attempted to correct anyone.”
For comparison’s sake, here’s a screenshot of Sheffield behind the mayor’s seal when she announced the People’s Bills in 2018. Duggan was not present at this conference.
…and here’s a screenshot of Sheffield behind the City Council seal when she updated the public on the People’s Bills in 2019.
Full videos of both are below.