Municipal Millennials: Three Metro Detroit City Officials Who Are Under 40

By a wide margin, metro Detroit's city councils and city commissions are predominantly composed of older folks. In a quick survey of these governing bodies, Metromode turned up fewer than 20 city councilpersons and commissioners under the age of 40 across the entire metro area. But November's elections brought in several new councilors and commissioners who've yet to close out their fourth decade of life. We talked to three of these young electees about which issues are most important to them, why more members of their generation aren't running for office and how to change that.
 
Samantha Steckloff, 29, Farmington Hills City Council
 
Samantha Steckloff says she was "given everything on a silver platter" growing up in Farmington Hills, but she felt the effects of the national economic down-turn too. Like many millennials, Steckloff has already been through several jobs in her short career. She currently works as an enrollment manager coordinator at Wayne State University. 
 
"[Millenials] have always had to anticipate a loss, so we've always budgeted for the future," she says. "This is how we started our adult lives. So when I look at budgeting issues, I'm always looking and anticipating for the future."
 
Planning for the long term plays heavily into Steckloff's political plans for Farmington Hills as well. She notes her interest in engaging the city's robust senior citizen population to ensure that they remain in Farmington Hills the rest of their lives. But she also raises the topic of creating new infrastructure that will remain sustainable into her own generation's senior years. The key, she says, is collaboration between community members, businesses, nonprofits and government - and between revitalization policy and environmental policy. 
 
"When you're rebuilding a building, you think about ‘What is this going to look like in 30 years?'" she says. "We don't think about today, you have to think about tomorrow. We look into environmental issues, we look into sustainability and we look into what's the future of the community."
 
Although Steckloff has been involved in local politics since co-founding the Mayor's Youth Council in high school, she says running for council was a "tough" decision. She says millennials, including herself, can feel limited by being much further down life's ladder than their parents were at the same age - but that's not a bad thing. 
 
"It's just different and we need to recognize that," she says. "We need to recognize this is a reality, and not a fault. And once we do that, the confidence will skyrocket."
 
Susan Dabaja, 36, Dearborn City Council president
 
Susan Dabaja has a few years on Samantha Steckloff, but she says one of the questions she heard most during her campaign was still: "How are you going to manage?" Dabaja is a mother of three and a practicing attorney at Farhat Law in Dearborn. 
 
"Between raising my family, working as an attorney and being on city council, I think there's that concern out there," she says. "But I think with good time management skills and confidence and motivation, you can run for elective office and still do all that."
 
By receiving the largest share of votes in November's election, Dabaja was automatically elected president of the Dearborn City Council. She says she comes to the council with a specific set of political priorities "as someone who's not retired and doesn't have kids in college." 
 
First is maintaining a safe environment for her family by supporting the city's "top-notch" police and fire departments, and emphasizing city services.
 
"Having clean streets, clean parks, a library, our pool, all of that is important," she says. "It's something that makes our community continue to be attractive to young families looking for a new place to live."
 
As a working professional, Dabaja says she also wants to make Dearborn a welcoming location for business.
 
"It's important that the city government works with local businesses as far as figuring out ways to increase foot traffic, increase attractiveness to consumers who live outside of the city and find ways that we can make people aware that there are businesses we have in the city," she says.
 
Dabaja says government should present "a good cross-section" of the population, including younger members, and that there's no reason others of her generation shouldn't be able to follow in her footsteps with a little guidance.
 
"I think the younger generation should understand that it can be done, that there is a support system and there are mentors out there," she says. "And they may be encouraged to go forward and pursue it."
 
Oliver Wolcott, 31, Plymouth City Commission
 
"I'm not unique," Oliver Wolcott says. "In today's reality it can be jarring to try to hold on to a job and to remain in a place that you love. I definitely have empathy for people in that position."
 
Wolcott has certainly lived a typical millennial life: he's single and has bounced around Toledo and southeast Michigan for a grand total of four different careers thus far. (He currently works as a furniture salesman at Interior Environments (http://interiorenvironments.com/) in Southfield.) But he's positive about the prospects for engaging his generation as constituents. He says continuing to create a sense of place for Plymouth residents, particularly fellow millennials, is key.
 
"People from my generation, under 40, want to settle down and physically be in a place that's inviting on a number of levels - that has great schools, that's safe, that has a bustling downtown," he says. "That comes up a lot with friends, with associates, with co-workers, with people I meet out in the community. It's a resounding theme. So being in tune with that is incredibly important."
 
While Wolcott says it's "vital" for adults of any age to take part in public service, he knows he's in the minority among his generation, who are mostly forced to put anything that's not directly career- or family-related "on the back burner." But he notes that there are plenty of ways for younger metro Detroiters to engage in their community without the time commitment of a city council seat.
 
"Whether you run for office, whether you volunteer on a board, or you go to some weekend events for charity, all that stuff matters," he says.
 
But how to bring millennials on board with that sense of civic participation? Wolcott says that responsibility now falls to him and his fellow community leaders.
 
"The more younger people that we can get interested, that's on us, the elected officials and community leaders, to reach out," he says.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.