Young Guns In Metro Politics

Try prying any salacious details out of Dan Terbrack, Berkley's fresh-faced and first-time City Council member, and you're likely to come up empty handed. True, even if he could dish any stories of political infighting, sensational or otherwise, it probably wouldn't be a smart move for a political first-termer. But when pressed for insights into how his youth (Terbrack turns 29 this week) might put him at odds with the old guard and stories of tired codgers bogged down in stale bureaucracy or seedy dealmaking, he seems genuinely at a loss. If anything, Terbrack's pleasantly surprised thus far with what he's seen.

"When I ran for council, I didn't run saying I was going to bring all of these changes to the city," Terbrack says. "Because things in Berkley are run pretty well. We're in great shape, even financially. We certainly clash on issues from time to time, but I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here."

Terbrack might not be out to shake up the system but there is something new about his tone. It's refreshingly inclusive. Cooperative. Characteristics that in some way already mark him as an agent of change - part of a generation of conscientious, involved adults desperately seeking a way to make a difference without being divisive.

As someone learning the ropes of Michigan politics while still in his twenties, Terbrack's not alone. Among his peers are people like 21-year-old Harry Awdey of the Macomb County Charter Commission, Washtenaw County's 31-year-old commissioner Jeff Irwin, who was first elected at 22, and Kate Baker, 28, who won a seat on Ferndale's City Council last year. Together these young city-level officeholders might form a new wave, but they face some very old challenges: how to bring all that hot new energy and theory to a scope of politics generally more consumed with fixing potholes than paving the way to bold new horizons. Terbrack, for instance, is big on environmental issues but describes his work on the council as being more about dog kennels and rec centers.

Everyone I spoke to described being at a frustrating intersection of change and need. "Change" is no longer a luxury or slogan, but something absolutely essential to Michigan's economic survival, and "need" means fewer of the resources required for risk taking than ever.

Terbrack knows first-hand how dry his state's job market is. He's been a laid-off public high school teacher for the past two years. Jeff Irwin, too, is feeling the crunch. Two years ago he left a comfortable non-profit job to devote all of his time to his public service gig. At the time he had been offered the opportunity to chair the Board of Commissioners and felt the demands of the new position were so great he needed to choose between his civilian and political jobs. "So of course I picked the lower-paying one," Irwin jokes. No longer chairing the board, he's looking for ways to supplement his income beyond the $15,000 commissioner salary.

Rather than passively swimming in a job market beyond their control, though, both Terbrack and Irwin are in the rare position of actually being able to affect their local economies and improve not just their situations but those of their communities. Irwin, for instance, is hot for the issue of mass transit. He's working toward a commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit and fantasizes about the possibilities it will provide. "I hope to one day be able to hop on a train here and go down to Detroit," Irwin says. "Maybe take the train up to a club in Pontiac or go downtown and catch the game without worrying about parking or designated drivers."

But Irwin is mindful of more than just the entertainment benefits of bridging the Tri-Counties in this way. "If you connect people in places, you give people in ideas an opportunity to travel around easier, that's when you make things happen. That's when you create opportunities. It's good from a cultural perspective, good from an economic perspective, good from an environmental perspective. It's a triple win."

The transformational possibilities of mass transit for a struggling post-manufacturing community are not lost on Kate Baker, a lifelong resident of Ferndale who returned to finish her masters in urban planning after studying out of state. She's watched her city change over the past three decades, developing what she calls the "donut hole" problem -- an influx of youth mixed with people of her parent's age who never moved, but not a lot of in-between. "What I fear Ferndale is becoming is a community without children. People seem to move out to the suburbs as soon as they have kids." 

Baker reflects that recession factors such as a difficult housing market as well as the prohibitive costs of going suburban might have at least one silver lining if they force families to stay put, but wants to see Ferndale develop its own intrinsically modern appeal.

Baker has a strong vision for what her city can become. She sees a light rail line that goes well past the suggested stopping point of 8 Mile and more mixed use development along Woodward that would include residential buildings in the downtown area.

"Inner-ring suburbs like Ferndale are going to be the epicenters of redevelopment," Baker says. "Whether we move toward a new regional system or not, people are going to move back toward the urban center just because it's going to become unaffordable to continue that commute from, say, Clinton Township."

But before Baker can see her wildest development dreams come true she's getting a lesson in cooperation and, most importantly, in communication. She handily beat out two incumbents, one of whom was the city's former mayor, in the race for her seat,  a fact she credits to "a clear difference in energy, education and enthusiasm."

From the start, however, she was cautioned not to speak in too grand of terms. "I was told that if I talked about sustainability, or redevelopment, or reuse, that people wouldn't understand what these things meant," Baker says. "But I've found the exact opposite to be true. I've found that people like it when you talk to them about these things and give them real-world examples of what sustainable reuse means in Ferndale: it means that our older tool and die shops are converted into architecture studios; it means that people are able to, rather than tear down and build, preserve and use our historic buildings on Nine Mile. So I think that talking to people about what it means to grow our tax base, rather than just talking to them about single issues or something fluffy like youth sports, and being really serious with people is what appeals to them."

The learning curve for these new civil servants has taken different forms, though none would describe it as a trajectory from optimism to cynicism. Terbrack says he was simply naive at first about how a city council works. He assumed his vote was an equation: conscience plus research. He quickly saw how every vote represented weeks of previous negotiation, much of which had happened behind the scenes. But he sees a sincerity and an open-mindedness in the deal-making, and feels his more experienced colleagues have Berkley's interests at heart as much as he does.

Irwin agrees, describing his nine years as a commissioner as "universally positive."

"The kind of game playing and political maneuvering that is disconnected from good policy... I don't see a lot of that in Washtenaw County," he says. "Maybe it relates to the fact that these people didn't get into politics to make money," he adds, a playful reminder of the limits of a part-time salary.

As elected representatives of youth-stocked communities with plenty of young new perspectives, it's fitting that environmental mindfulness, sustainability and the new economy, as well as the push for a mass transit system which could contribute to all three, is at the top of these politicians' agendas. But there's a refreshing consistency in listening to them redefine "politics as usual" as such an inclusive, win-win experience. After all, any truly progressive view of the planet has to start with a simple picture of human cooperation. 

Baker describes how her greatest lesson in working with her elders was about generation gaps in communication styles, learning who needs a phone call or person-to-person meeting and who is fine with e-mail. But, she quickly adds, flexibility has little to do with age. "I know young people who are stuck in ruts. I have a friend who's 92 who sends me e-mails all the time. Change is a state of mind."

Daniel Johnson likes to write, among other things. His last article for Metromode was Light From Above: Divinity Meets Sustainability.


Washtenaw County Administration Bldg - Ann Arbor

Dan Terbrak teaching at Our Lady of Le Salette - Berkley

Jeff Irwin on the steps of the Washtenaw County Administration Bldg - Ann Arbor

Kate Baker at the Guardian Bldg - Detroit

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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