Race To The Finish
Gabe Leland aims to claim a seat on the Detroit City Council.
Gabe Leland, 30, stands alone among the 54 Detroiters vying for a seat on the Detroit City Council this November.
In a city of 714,000 that is 82.7 percent African American, and a district that holds 103,000 people, 86 percent of whom are African American, Leland is trying to become the first Jewish Detroit City Council member since Mel Ravitz, who served from 1962-1974 and 1982-1997.
With the state of the city in upheaval and an emergency financial manager holding the power over the mayor and city council, the first question that comes to mind is: Why?
“I don’t want to go into a job that’s already been solved. I want a project,” says Leland, a Central Michigan grad with a degree in community development. “I want to add to the madness, and I hope at the end of the day that I can inspire and be a voice for my district and institute some change.”
Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr won’t “be here forever, and what our constituents are left with at some point is a fully elected council and mayor,” he says. “And I hope to be there when it happens.”
What’s different about this race is the changing direction of the city council itself. No longer will there be nine at-large members. The city has been divided into seven districts, (see map) and seven of the nine council members will represent their own territory; two will be at-large. It’s a nonpartisan election, and the top two vote-getters in each of the nine races in the Aug. 6 primary will find themselves on the ballot Nov. 5.
Leland previously served as state representative in the 10th District of Detroit from 2004-2010 before being term-limited out. The 10th District represents about 40 percent of the new District 7 city council seat.
“No council person in Detroit has ever lived in District 7 before, so they haven’t been properly represented,” says Leland, who has lived in the west Detroit area for 9½ years, works at the Detroit Medical Center and volunteers at a health center in the city.
The first thing he will do if elected, he says, is open a mobile office, available throughout the year.
“They need to know that government can come to them,” he says. “It’s gonna be my job to listen to my community and hear them out and communicate back to them about exactly what’s taking place in Detroit at the top.”
He is running against five others in his district, but none of his opponents has his experience at the state level.
“If there’s anyone in my race that understands how to run a district, it’s me,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy; we’re going to have to go out and fight. You can be the smartest person, but if you don’t have those relationships, no one is going to listen to you.”
The biggest problem in his district is blight, Leland says.
“Walking door to door, I see five houses on a block abandoned. Missing doors or windows, some of them are burned. Some have squatters living there,” he says. “Your heart goes out to the neighbors on those streets that can’t leave. There’s nothing positive.”
He blames the housing market debacle. “They started burning the houses down, squatters moved in, thieves moved in and started taking what they wanted,” he says. “The city should try to make it easier for residents to be able to purchase abandoned adjacent land.”
Crime is also an issue, he says.
“We’re 40 minutes over the national average in emergency response time, and it allows these criminals to live without consequences,” he says. “Families won’t move into our community unless these issues are addressed. We have to be creative in finding strategies to fund these departments.”
Leland is a member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and has held political lunch-and-learn programs there in the past. He attended Habonim Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Mich., where he learned leadership skills and about tikkun olam.
Representing Detroit is in his blood. He’s the son of Burton Leland, a Wayne County Commissioner since 2006, and former state representative from 1981-1998 and state senator from 2000-2006 until he was term-limited out.
Five days a week and five hours a day, Leland and his father knock on doors in the 7th District, meeting constituents, passing out campaign literature and shaking hands.
“He’s not going to get a lot of endorsements,” Burt says. “There are a lot of folks who run these institutions who don’t like the fact that you’ve got a Caucasian, a Jew, running in an area that is heavily African American, and they just don’t think he has a right to be there.
“I don’t think the voters are going to be taken by that,” he continued. “I think that they’re perfectly happy with someone who will deliver the services, have the passion, engage them, work hard every day. He’s got the passion, the heart and the soul. He’s kind of like how I was when I was his age.”
Both are unwavering in their beliefs, fight for the rights of those less fortunate and have beaten the odds. They both have had to fight residency issues during their campaigns, too.
Burt was challenged and won a court battle last year against an opponent who says Burt actually lived in East Lansing. In July, one of Gabe’s opponents contacted the Detroit Elections Department claiming that Gabe didn’t live in Detroit, either. The investigation was inconclusive, and Gabe remains on the ballot.
“Now they’re just throwing a few Molotov cocktails,” Burt says. “But by November, they’re gonna be firing 50mm cannons at him.”
Daniel Oberlin, a policy analyst in the Michigan State Senate who has worked for both Lelands in the past, spoke admiringly of Gabe.
“Gabe has a tenacious personality and an unmatched energy that will make him a great addition to the council,” he says.
During weekly meetings concerning constituent complaints that included topics like potholes, food stamps and broken streetlights, “some problems were harder than others to fix,” Oberlin says.
“Gabe always volunteered to work on the hardest cases, and this lead-from-the-front quality speaks a lot for his character.”
As Gabe walks door-to-door, pressing the flesh and handing out literature, he sees himself representing Detroit’s new 7th District and taking the advice of his father: “Treat your constituents like family.”