Detroit's Last White City Council Member Plots a Political Future
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 later this month, 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 city-wide 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.
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