Southfield mayor echoes Obama campaign refrain: 'Yes, I can'

8/29/2008

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - There's a part of Brenda Lawrence that still doesn't believe this is true, that makes her want to pinch herself.

Four years ago, the mayor of suburban Southfield was a delegate to her first Democratic National Convention, in Boston. She remembers, as everyone does, the riveting keynote speech, by a then nearly unknown young Senate candidate named Barack Obama.

"Afterwards, I went shopping and I heard people over and over say, 'Did you hear that guy? He could be president!'•" said Ms. Lawrence, whose city of 75,000 people just north of Detroit is home to many of the area's educated, middle-class black professionals.

"I remember looking around and thinking, 'Well, maybe they didn't notice he was African-American,'•" she said, laughing.

She had noticed, all right.

Born in 1954, she grew up in overwhelmingly segregated Detroit, managed to leave town to go to Central Michigan University, but then came back to raise a family and join the gradual migration to Southfield to raise a family where crime was less and the schools better.

She got involved with the PTA, the school board, and City Council. Finally, in 2001, she narrowly defeated an incumbent white mayor, in office for decades.

Her election was unlike most black/white political faceoffs. Many whites supported Ms. Lawrence, saying the incumbent was too out of touch and too cozy with developers.

But many blacks wanted to keep the white mayor. "I want to live in a suburb. If we get a black mayor, I'm afraid we'll turn into a ghetto," a young man said at the time.

That didn't happen. Southfield is now two-thirds black, but has stayed solidly middle class, with a sizable Orthodox Jewish community. When she ran for re-election three years ago, Ms. Lawrence was utterly unopposed.

Yet she, like the vast majority of black politicians, never dreamed she'd live to see an African-American president. She was 12 when the riots tore Detroit apart; barely a teenager when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot down in Memphis.

So when Barack Obama announced for president last year, "I thought, that's great. But I never thought he could actually be the nominee. I was a Hillary [Clinton] girl," she says laughing.

"And now," she pauses, on the phone, with a catch in her throat. She was a super delegate this year. People were expecting her to endorse Senator Clinton early but then came Iowa.

And Super Tuesday, and Wisconsin, and Virginia, on and on, through to Montana. When she finally endorsed a candidate, at the end, it wasn't Hillary Clinton. "I am so proud," she said.

This spring, she did something else startling. She declared that she would run for executive of Oakland County, the second-largest (1.2 million people) and by far the most affluent county in Michigan.

That didn't only mean running in a place where barely more than 10 percent of the population is black. It meant taking on one of the legendary, larger-than-life figures of Michigan politics, 70-year-old L. Brooks Patterson, who has held the job for years, and was county prosecutor for years before that.

He's flamboyant, colorful, well-funded, and everybody says never could be defeated. Sort of, as she sees it, like they said about Hillary Clinton in Iowa. So does Brenda Lawrence think she can win?

She chuckles, and quotes her nominee. "Yes, I can."

Going to Pot? The courts finally ruled against the hotly divisive "Reform Michigan Government Now" ballot proposal, which would have rewritten vast parts of the state constitution.

Meanwhile, another proposal to legalize and regulate embryonic stem-cell research will be on the November ballot, and Right of Life and the Roman Catholic Church are gearing up for what is expected to be an expensive campaign to oppose it.

Lost in the glare of that looming battle is another ballot proposal that once would have been enormously controversial, but which sailed onto the ballot seemingly under the radar: Medical Marijuana.

Michigan voters will decide in November whether ill people should be allowed to seek a doctor's approval to not only use, but possess small amounts of the drug and even grow their own plants.

"This is a well-written, well-crafted proposal," said Lance Gable, an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University.

Twelve states have ratified medical marijuana, all of them, however, in either New England or the far West. Michigan would be the first in the Midwest.

Supporters gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to get it on the ballot, once it was clear the Legislature wouldn't touch it.

Yet even among Republicans, opposition has softened. Some are still like state Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker (R., Allegan County), who denounced the idea and indicated that any legalization would send society down a "slippery slope."

But her neighboring state Rep. Fulton Sheen (R., Plainwell) is just as deeply conservative on most issues. He once opposed medical marijuana but changed his mind after seeing the drug give some relief to his brother, dying of complications from HIV.

Now, "I look at it as a kind of prescription drug for those who are very sick."

With the religious right tied up fighting stem-cell research, don't be surprised if medical marijuana manages to pass.