City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr. will not run for re-election this year, and his departure will end, at least temporarily, a family dynasty that has been part of Detroit’s city government and courts for nearly half a century.
A quiet man by political standards and a self-described "geek," Cockrel was widely considered a consensus builder on the often-racous council. He served as interim mayor for eight months after the resignation of Kwame Kilpatrick, but lost a special election to Dave Bing, who then won the four-year term in the fall of 2009.
Cockrel, 47, said he decided on a retirement plan in 2009, when he won his fourth term, because he realized he didn't want to spend his life on the council.
"I pretty much made up my mind four years ago," he said. "I don't want to stagnate and make it all about the paycheck."
He added: "You can only be on council for so long; you wind up being painted as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution."
Cockrel's announcement increases the uncertainty of the upcoming municipal elections, which will take place as the emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder -- Kevyn Orr -- assumes decision-making power over the mayor and city council. Moreover, the majority of the nine-member council will be elected in November by districts for the first time in almost 100 years.
Woodbridge District Homeowner
Cockrel lives in the Woodbridge neighborhood west of Wayne State University, and his district -- No. 6 -- generally extends into heavily Hispanic southwest Detroit.
So far, council members Charles Pugh and Kwame Kenyatta have announced they are not running. Gary Brown and JoAnn Watson, who finished last in the 2009 election, have said they are undecided. Watson also lives in District 6. The filing deadline is May 14.
Cockrel said the appointment of the emergency manager played no role in his decision.
But he and wife Kimberly have five children, and three will be in college next year.
"That has been a factor," Cockrel said, laughing. "They're talking about making the council part-time. I can't send three kids to college on a part-time salary."
A journalist before he entered politics, Cockrel said he has no specific plans, but will remain in Detroit. He would like to work to improve the city, perhaps for a nonprofit or even a local corporation.
Heritage of Public Service
Cockrel is the son of Kenneth Cockrel Sr., a charismatic attorney and self-described Marxist who was one of Detroit’s best known -– and effective -- radicals in the 1960s. Cockrel Sr. debated running for mayor in 1973, but eventually won election to the city council in 1977 and distinguished himself as a spokesman against the city’s tax abatements and other aid to wealthy businessmen and corporations. He served one term.
In 1989, Cockrel Sr. was again toying with running for mayor, against an aging Coleman Young, but he died of a heart attack at age 50.
Cockrel Sr.’s second wife was Sheila Murphy Cockrel, who became Ken Cockrel Jr.'s stepmother. She was a Detroit activist who was elected to council in 1993 and quickly earned a reputation for being the council’s best prepared member on virtually every issue that came before it. She served four terms before deciding not to run, and now works as a consultant and teaches in Wayne State University’s Honors College.
Ken Cockrel Jr. was elected to the council at age 32 in 1997 after serving on the Wayne County Commission.
Cockrel received the most votes in the 2005 election, becoming council president. In that position, he became interim mayor in September 2008 after Kilpatrick resigned after pleading guilty to perjury.
With his diamond-studded earring and flashy lifestyle, Kilpatrick was a striking contrast to Cockrel, a steady family man who enjoys science fiction and action movies. In a reference to "Star Trek," he closed his inaugural speech by telling Detroiters to “boldly go where no other city has gone before.”
''This Is Our Time''
Earlier in the speech, Cockrel said, “This is our time to breathe life back into the city.”
He added: “It is critical that we find closure, mend our wounds, treat our bumps and bruises and heal as a city,” he said. “It is also important that after that healing, we get back to work.”
In a special election in May 2009, Cockrel, with 48 percent of the vote, lost to Bing, who went on in November 2009 to win election as mayor to a four-year term.
Cockrel said he remains proud of the first ordinance he passed -- a measure that mandated prompt payments to city vendors, which was designed to protect small Detroit businesses from the city's often capricious way of paying bills.
He also takes pride in founding the council's Green Task Force, which has urged the adoption of environmentally sound practices that make good economic sense, and the installation of 62 miles of bike lanes on Detroit streets.
During his short stay as mayor, Cockrel put together -- despite fierce oppositon -- the five-person regional board that now runs Cobo Center, a far-reaching step that has received praise since its inception.
"I think it's doing a stellar job," he said.
As a council president, Cockrel developed a reputation as a moderate who refrained from the headline-making drama that sometimes enveloped the body.
In April 2008, Cockrel, a big man with a shaved head, was assailed during a council meeting as “Shrek,” the animated film character, by Councilwoman Monica Conyers. Presiding over the meeting, Cockrel tried to gavel Conyers silent when she interrupted another council member. As she grew increasingly emotional, Cockrel remained firm, but in control. When he threatened to adjourn the meeting, Conyers repeatedly yelled, “Do it, baby.”
Conyers eventually served time in prison for accepting a bribe. None of the Cockrels have ever been accused of any impropriety.
"I got irked at times," he said. "I tried to keep my cool. It's not always easy."