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Politics > Politics and Prejudices

So long, Maryann

MT photo: George Waldman
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Published 8/2/2006

Maryann Mahaffey died last week, and everyone rushed to say the usual sorts of things. Here's something they didn't say, however, and which says it all: I simply cannot believe that she is gone.

When Coleman A. Young died, or Ronald Reagan, or even my own parents, that was that; whatever feelings I had, that was the end of an era. But Maryann Mahaffey cannot possibly be gone. Yes, we'd come to terms — barely — with her taking a term off from City Council.

She had some little picky problem — leukemia, or something — and said she needed to build up her strength. But I saw her at the Buck Dinner in March and at an ACLU meeting later this spring. I was fully confident that she'd be leading the charge at some demonstration in front of the White House soon, cheerfully trying to make those who are obsessing over the TomKat baby notice that the administration was destroying the world.

After that, she probably would testify before Congress about how mothers in the inner city were not getting enough nutrition, and then get back to work. Maybe she'd start writing that book she always meant to write, between kicking ass. (There was so much that needed kicking.)

Alas, biology nastily invoked a point of order, and cut her time — there never was, there never is, enough time — short.

And the days will pass and maybe they will put her name on a building, and her memory will fade. Time does that too.

So here's what you need to know, and remember, about Maryann Mahaffey. She never gave up. She never gave up on this city or this country or this planet. She never turned her back on the poor or the messed-up or unions or the downtrodden.

Never.

And she wasn't a sappy, fuzzy-headed liberal, as conservatives and The Detroit News editorial page sometimes tried to portray her.

She was — this is important — very, very smart. She had a huge heart, but was also a tough bird, analytical as the dickens.

Ask any department head who was hauled up to be questioned by the City Council president. Not only did she know how to find out where the bodies were buried, she usually had a good idea which flunky had stolen the change out of their pockets. Sometimes I called her at home when I needed help understanding how something worked in the city. Mahaffey always was enormously helpful. Once I asked about a baffling controversy in which a Detroit minister lost his job. She knew the inside details of who had done what to whom there, too, and why.

It would be easy to see her as part of Detroit's past — a white woman from Iowa farm country — who moved to this great brawling industrial city when it was still an exciting and powerful place.

There were thousands and thousands of others with similar pedigrees, and long ago they all left, right about the time — 1973 — that Maryann first was elected to City Council. Maryann Mahaffey never thought about leaving, not even when she was mugged in her own driveway.

You don't run away; you fight to make your city better, she believed. I don't think any part of that came out of any misguided martyr complex.

No. The real secret to Maryann Mahaffey was this: She really was color-blind. That's a cliché we use today to praise anyone who is not an overt racist. Almost always, it isn't true. Whatever their behavior, virtually everyone I have ever met has some tinge of racist residue.

Maryann Mahaffey did not. I saw her enough to know that. She knew there was racism, black and white; she saw it every day.

She saw it as a young girl in a different context, when, as a college student she worked in a concentration camp during World War II. One of our concentration camps, that is, the ones we forced Japanese-Americans into, in what was perhaps America's most shameful act since slavery.

That was one of the shaping influences of her life; she went on to get a master's degree in social work, and kept in touch with some of the people she met in that camp, and their descendants, for the rest of her life.

I never heard anyone say a racist word against Maryann Mahaffey either; she won the vast majority of black votes as well as white ones, though in 1997, there was a secret successful effort to hold down her vote slightly so that Gil Hill could become City Council president.

That was in case Dennis Archer was called to a big Washington job, like attorney general, by either President Bill Clinton or Al Gore. The council president would have replaced him.

Later, when Mahaffey regained her rightful place at the head of the council, I had a secret dream that Kwame Kilpatrick would resign to join a Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Ky., and she would finally become mayor.

Then she would fix everyone with that owlish gaze, maybe put on the Superman costume again (as she once did for this newspaper), point her finger, and say in that wonderful voice, "Now sit down, shut up and get back and start doing your job right."

They would have, too, without one whimper about whitey. A few years ago, I was listening to the Mildred Gaddis radio show one morning, and an angry black woman called up. I knew the caller's voice; she had lit in to many a white politician for slighting Detroit and the black community.

That day, she was mad at Kay Everett, who was then still alive, compos if not mentis. Seems that she had insulted Maryann at the previous night's council meeting. "How dare she disrespect Councilwoman Mahaffey?

"That Kay Everett don't have any idea what she is talking about. Maryann Mahaffey knows this city," the caller said.

Someday, if the city makes it, long after I myself am fertilizer, the black citizens of Detroit will elect a white mayor, and the whites in Birmingham will elect a black one, and that won't be especially remarkable.

When that happens, if that ever happens, it will mean that Maryann Mahaffey won't have been part of Detroit's dusty past at all, but the beginning of its future. I can imagine her, somewhere, getting that news. She would flash that winning smile — and then catch herself.

"Whoever they are," she'll ask, sounding those broad vowels. "Are they doing anything for the people who don't have anything?"

 

Black, white, and read less and less: The baffling thing to me about Gannett, the company that owns the Detroit Free Press and controls the News, is not that their product is so bad, though it mostly is.

You could understand that, if it meant they were making a lot of money. But they aren't; subscribers are fleeing the newspapers in droves.

After years of decline, they've now taken failure to a new level. In June, the Freep was down more than 13,000 from a year ago. The Detroit News lost twice as many. This is a paper that had 670,000 subscribers before Gannett — which owned the News before acquiring the Freep — ruined it. Now, there are 199,641 left.

Why do I think that is? Because the top management are idiots who are trying to put out a paper for people who don't want to read. What they have done instead is give us papers no one wants to read. I never knew you could manage a firm so badly without working for General Motors.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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