Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


In Detroit area politics, a case of like father, like son



The Blade
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 DETROIT — Phil Cavanagh was a newborn when his father faced his first election: the 1961 primary for mayor of Detroit. His dad, a little-known young lawyer, finished a poor second. The incumbent was seen as invincible.

But two months later, in the biggest upset in Detroit political history, Jerome Cavanagh beat Mayor Louis Miriani in a landslide.

“I am a little too young to remember,” Mr. Cavanagh, grinning, said. He does, however, remember growing up with a daddy who was mayor, and the idea that public service was the highest calling.

Now, Mr. Cavanagh, a state representative from the nearby suburb of Redford, is on a mission. He is determined to be the next Wayne County executive, and is throwing everything he has into an effort to win the Democratic primary in August.

“There’s never been a more crucial time in [county] history,” he said over breakfast near Detroit’s open-air Eastern Market, close to where he opened his campaign headquarters on opening day of baseball season in Detroit this week.

Wayne County, Michigan’s biggest county with almost 1.8 million people, is in trouble. For years, it has been plagued by scandal. There has been a long trail of appointee dismissals and questionable severance payments, problems with the courts, and inadequate funding for the prosecutor’s office.

State courts had to step in after Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett tried to disqualify half the votes Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan received in last year’s primary election.

Then there was the biggest scandal of all: Construction was stopped last summer on a new county jail, after millions of dollars were squandered on cost overruns by unsupervised subcontractors. Money lost by taxpayers: $170 million.

The county is fighting to avoid being assigned an emergency manager. “There’s no excuse for any of this,” Mr. Cavanagh said. He added, however, that he was not surprised.

“We need integrity and transparency, and have none,” he said. “That’s not how things are supposed to work, but that’s how things have worked under [Wayne County Executive] Bob Ficano. Believe me, I know it works; I’ve been there.”

Mr. Cavanagh has lived in Wayne County his entire life, choosing to go to the University of Detroit — not the University of Michigan — for law school.

He’s served two four-year terms as a county commissioner. He can tell tales of a go-along-to-get-along culture; commissioners knew that if they asked too many questions, they were liable to have a primary opponent.

Wayne County has been a place where budgets were presented at the last minute before commission approval was expected. Five years ago, Mr. Cavanagh left the commission after he lost a bid to oust county Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz, 84, who has been in that office since 1974 (they don’t call Wayne County an old boys’ network for nothing).

Since then, Mr. Cavanagh has served two terms in the Michigan Legislature. He easily could have won a third term this year, or opted for a state Senate seat “that was tailor-made for me,” he said.

But he feels it is now or never. “This place needs competence, integrity, and transparency, and I will bring all three,” Mr. Cavanagh said. Among other things, he said he would put every bit of county business online for all to see.

When cuts have to be made, those asked to sacrifice would be the better-paid appointees, “not the person making $30,000 who they want to cut to $24,000, so they lose their house,” he said.

Winning the Democratic nomination in Wayne County is essentially a guarantee of a general election victory. But while Mr. Cavanagh is a strong contender, he has strong competition.

Kevin McNamara, a current commissioner who is the son of the late, legendary county boss Ed McNamara, is in the race. So is William Wild, the mayor of Westland, who may have the least name recognition, but has the most money backing him.

Despite an extremely low approval rating, Mr. Ficano is acting as if he might run again. The race also could be dramatically affected if a major African-American candidate, such as Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, were to get in.

Still, Mr. Cavanagh feels confident he can win, if he can raise the $1 million or so he calculates a successful countywide campaign would require.

You get the feeling he also would like to make his late father proud. The men are very different.

While Mr. Cavanagh has been doggedly working in various government jobs, his father’s career resembled a brilliant, but tragically doomed, comet. He was extremely popular for the first few years after his surprise mayoral victory, and won re-election by a landslide four years later.

National magazines predicted a big political future for Jerry Cavanagh. But then things fell apart, fast. He angered Democratic Party elders by unsuccessfully taking on the legendary Soapy Williams in a tough U.S. Senate primary fight.

Next, Jerry Cavanagh’s image — and perhaps his heart — was broken by the devastating Detroit riots of 1967. A nasty, embarrassing, and public divorce trial followed.

The young mayor declined to run for a third term. Ten years later, he died of a heart attack at the age of 51.

Last year, his son, a divorced father of three grown daughters, turned 52. “I thought about that then, that I was older than my dad lived to be,” he said.

Jerry Cavanagh, he added, wanted to help people. Half a century later, his son hopes to get his turn.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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