Stephen Henderson: Garlin Gilchrist is the ‘new’ Detroit

When I say the phrase “new” Detroit, I know it evokes a wide range of ideas and emotions about how this city has changed and is changing, about legacies and ownership and who has claim to them.

But when I say Garlin Gilchrist is the new Detroit, a phrase that has rolled off my tongue more than a few times this campaign season, I mean something specific and hopeful about the city’s future and a growing cadre of young, bright and energetic leaders.

Gilchrist is the new Detroit in the sense of the city’s rebirth. The rebirth of a sharp and powerful class of Detroiter that is accomplished and educated. The rebirth of a group that’s poised to shape not just the crude political landscape around here, but to craft the kind of smart policy Detroit will need as it moves forward.

Detroiters will decide Nov. 7 whether Gilchrist will be the new city clerk, an important position that safeguards the electoral process and access to the ballot.

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Win or lose, though, he has made a mark on the race, and the city. He came from nowhere to finish second in the primary election. And bigger than that, his campaign of strong ideas and adherence to social justice has set him up to be significant even if he loses in November.

Gilchrist is a towering guy (6-foot-8, reportedly) with an intellect to match and a facile, congenial manner that’s at once disarming and impressive. He is razor-sharp on voting rights issues, and has a pinpoint focus on protecting the franchise, and opening up ballot access to those who struggle to acquire it.

Gilchrist began this campaign season as a quixotic figure, an upstart in a race that had two much better known figures. Civil rights activist Heaster Wheeler has been a fixture in Detroit’s political environ for decades, and has deep ties to organized labor. Janice Winfrey has been the clerk here since 2005.

Gilchrist, who’s just 35, was a University of Michigan-educated computer engineer who’d helped Mayor Mike Duggan build better efficiency and accountability systems for city government.

He had almost no name recognition when the campaign started, but he’d done some significant things, working for Microsoft and the campaign of former President Barack Obama.

He’d also won significant voter-access challenges in Florida, Texas and the Carolinas as national campaign director for the progressive public policy group MoveOn.org.

Most important, Gilchrist brought crystal clear vision to the clerk’s race with an agenda crafted entirely around the idea of enhancing voter access and securing the vote-counting process.

Gilchrist’s narrative is part of what has me impressed. Homegrown kid gets educated, goes off to do important things elsewhere and then returns home to make a contribution in public service.

It’s the kind of story we need here in Detroit, and one that we’ve been missing for a bit.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s self-immolation, and the damage it did to the futures of other promising young Detroiters, has had me worried for a time about the city’s leadership.

That wiped out a full political generation — either through its direct connection to Kilpatrick, or the unfair associations drawn between him and other young African-American aspirants, in particular.

But any city’s political and policy health is ultimately cast by the strength of the people in charge of it. And if you’re not growing that talent locally, or even importing it and giving it a chance to grow and learn and be productive, you’re doomed.

It felt for awhile as if we were, even as the city’s exciting new investment and development was taking root.

Now, there’s a class of Detroiters emerging on the other side of the Kilpatrick decline like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

Detroit now has a passel of fresh-faced, ambitious young public service-oriented players whose work will be integral to maintaining the momentum we’ve built up, and expanding its benefits for city residents.

Think of Abdul El-Sayed, the Rhodes Scholar and former city health commissioner who’s now running for governor.

Or Fayrouz Saad, who heads Duggan’s immigrant affairs endeavor and has announced a run for Congress next year in the suburban 11th District.

Eight years into their service on City Council, I believe James Tate and Andre Spivey will go on to higher and better service in the city or region.

And outside the world of elected office, there are also strong, young contributors.

Tony Saunders, who has helped straighten out the tremendous financial mess in Wayne County, comes to mind.

So does Sommer Woods, whose dedication to Detroit’s youth and residents, shows in her role as a leader at M-1 Rail and as a mentor.

And Mark Wallace, whose leadership of the Riverfront Conservancy is enhancing recreation along the water in a way Detroit has never seen.

All of these people are the new Detroit, at least to me.

They represent the repair of what got broken here, the reinstatement of promise after crushing defeat. What sets them apart is accomplishment — not name recognition or opportunism, not legacy or entitlement.

Gilchrist is one of them. Detroit is better for that fact, win or lose on Nov. 7.