BY DAN CORTEZ
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Warren voters said for months that they wanted to use this election to bring real change to the state’s third-largest city. Their votes in Tuesday’s primary proved they weren’t bluffing.
Longtime City Councilman Jim Fouts, viewed as the antidote to term-limited mayor Mark Steenbergh, cruised to a shockingly easy win in the mayoral primary with nearly 51% of the vote with all precincts reporting. Richard Sulaka, the city clerk, is to face Fouts in the November election after Sulaka came in a distant second with nearly 32%.
“The voters have spoken loud and clear,” Fouts said between accepting congratulations at the Knights of Columbus hall on Chicago Road. “They want a complete cleansing of City Hall and I think that is what this vote is about.”
City Councilwoman Mindy Moore, who consistently backed Steenbergh’s agenda, was third with less than 11%.
Political watchers framed this election as an opportunity for voters to reshape a Warren government that has been mired in controversy and combativeness between Steenbergh and the City Council. The infighting cast Detroit’s biggest suburb in a negative light, and Warren figures to play a more cooperative role with its neighbors throughout the region with a new mayor, clerk, treasurer and at least five new members on the City Council.
Sulaka, who outspent Fouts more than 5-1, was pleased with Tuesday’s outcome.
“We’re exactly where we want to be,” he said. “Now we’re going to go out and take our message to the voters.”
Moore did not return a call seeking comment.
The chance to pick new leaders wasn’t enough to bring out the voters, though, as several officials positioned at polls throughout the day reported poor voter turnout. Turnout was about 17%.
During the past month, each candidate promised that they would clean up the city’s notoriously dirty politics. That didn’t stop a late flurry of attack-type campaign literature that hit voters’ mailboxes over the weekend. Multiple candidates also filed police reports after campaign signs vanished.
Fouts, a 63-year-old retired government teacher who has served on the council for 26 years, cast himself as the grassroots candidate and often refers to himself as the neighborhood councilman. He also has plenty of political enemies who call him divisive. Fouts waited until the last minute to join the race after saying he would wait until next year to run for state representative.
According to campaign finance reports for January through July, Fouts raised more than $45,000, although $34,000 of that was a loan he gave to his campaign.
Sulaka, 52, had spent the past year preparing his run for the mayor’s seat, raising more than $220,000 through July for the run. He served as city clerk the past eight years and spent time as a planning commissioner and city councilman before that. He would become the first Chaldean elected mayor of a major U.S. city if he wins in November. Opponents criticized Sulaka’s past financial troubles while he underwent heart bypass surgery in the middle of his campaign.
Moore, 50, has been a consistent advocate of Steenbergh’s policies during her first term on the council. In recent months, she has spoken out against the blight she says is creeping through the city. She took in more than $50,000 through July and spent half of that.
This is the first year Warren has held its primary in August. The City Council OK’d moving the voting from September. Some political watchers blamed the low voter turnout on the change in dates. Tuesday also was the first election where term limits forced officials from office.
The three other mayoral candidates — Thomas Grillo, Deborah Mansour and Matthew J. Wroblewski — were considered long shots from the moment they filed.
Whoever is elected in November will inherit a city in a good financial position with plenty of issues to address. The city’s downtown and the expenditure of $75 million in bonds for a new City Hall has created bitter divides among residents and officials. Officials also have quibbled over how to clean up blighted neighborhoods.
Contact DAN CORTEZ at 586-469-1827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.