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FERNDALE – The Ferndale election has already garnered international attention. USA Today ran an article about the challenge. The Detroit Free Press called it a “duel.” The Washington Times headline says “Michigan Mayoral Race Pits Gay Man vs. Gay Man,” and even says, “Some gays worry the race might cause divide and suggest that former mayor Craig Covey’s run will actually turn back the clock on homosexual rights with his attacks on the current mayor Dave Coulter.”
And while it is true that having Michigan’s first openly-gay elected mayor running against its second is a rare occurrence, in Ferndale the focus is more about the issues. Most local residents care more about the issues facing the city than about the sexual orientation of their elected officials.
“Having a gay candidate for mayor of Ferndale is so late 1990s. It’s not a story anymore and never should’ve been in the first place,” said Ferndale resident Chris Ernest. “The people of the city of Ferndale have always been a brother and sisterhood of kindred spirits that believe we are all one. There is no such thing as gay, or black or white in Ferndale. It’s being a part of something cool!”
For one thing, the race is not just between two gay men. There are two other candidates running for the office. For what it’s worth to those who track demographics, the two lesser-known opponents are women.
Sherry Wells, who is a Democrat, has lived in Ferndale for 25 years and was part of the Charter Revision Commission in the 1990s. She and her daughter live near downtown. She is a former member of the Ferndale Rotary, part of Ferndale Seniors, a former member of the Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce and has been a consistent presence at council meetings giving announcements about various events. She was especially vocal on the issue of creating a noise ordinance for the city. At a recent city council meeting she said that she gathered 120 signatures to get her name on the ballot, 42 percent of them are on the east side of the city. “Your mayor should be the face of Ferndale and I will do that for you,” Wells said, noting that because she does not work full time she has more time to devote to community involvement.
Linda Parton and her husband Joe have lived in Ferndale for 23 years. Parton filed petitions on Aug. 13. She is 55 years old and the mother of three sons, one daughter and two stepsons. She was the leader of the Ferndale Cub Scout Pack 1245 for five years and has held the positions of vice president and secretary for the Ferndale Elementary PTA. She has volunteered to do photography for the Ferndale High School Musical program, and she is active at Woodlawn Church in Royal Oak. She works as a photographer and is listed on her Facebook page as a conservative. “One definite item I will work on, will be to cost effectively eliminate the new parking ‘Pay Stations’ by Digital,” she said. “No one likes them, residents, visitors and businesses alike.”
These two candidates, who have significantly less experience with campaigning and public office, are easily overlooked by the media. Both Coulter and Covey are seasoned politicians and public community activists. Not only have they worked for equality in the LGBT community and ending the AIDS epidemic, they have each worked on other issues that have nothing to do with being gay.
Coulter is involved in the Democratic Party. He is one of the vice chairs of the statewide LGBT caucus, but before that he served as chair of the 9th congressional district. He served four terms as Oakland county commissioner (2002-2010), was on the Human Rights Ordinance committee of 1999, and served on the library board from 2004-2005. He was the executive director of the Michigan AIDS Fund and is currently program officer for Children’s Hospital of Michigan. He’s been mayor since 2011, and is running on a platform of financial health for the city, making it more business-friendly, building strong community through parks and a clean sweep program, and looking at quality of life for residents.
While Covey is also a Democrat, he’s better known for the way he parties than sticking to party politics. His forte is creating grand events like the Ferndale Pub Crawl, the Ferndale Blues Festival and Ferndale Pride, as ways to raise money for charities. Covey served on city council from 2000-2007 before becoming the first openly gay elected mayor in Michigan in 2008. In 2010 he gave up the seat when he won the seat on the county commission left vacant by Coulter when Coulter gave it up in an unsuccessful run for State Senate. Covey was the CEO of Michigan AIDS Prevention Project, which later became Michigan AIDS Coalition. He’s on the board of the Ferndale Community Foundation, Ferndale Youth Assistance and is leading the push to decriminalize marijuana in the city.
“I am not running against anyone. I am running for the people of Ferndale,” he’s stated several times. His issues involve concern over government spending, including the new parking system. He blames the current council for the city’s high water bills and “the feeling that some city government activities are getting more complicated, more complex and less efficient.”
The race does pit friend against friend, and the salacious national media may only be doing what is expected of them. Comments on regional and national news sites vary from jokes about missing Detroit city council President Charles Pugh returning to Ferndale to make it a threesome, to a quip about voting for the one who has the most Liza Minelli paraphernalia. And of course a slew of bigots hoping neither of them win, using the contest as evidence that LGBT people are dramatic.
But it also is indicative of a more peaceful larger circumstance – greater LGBT acceptance.
Mark LaChey, chair of the Michigan Democratic LGBT Caucus put the race in a broader perspective. “Of course, it’s historic for Michigan and nationally and demonstrates the degree of acceptance of openly LGBT candidates and elected officials in Ferndale and Southeast Michigan. In many ways, their sexual orientation is no more of an issue than their height or hair color…truly a non-issue. Especially when considering that the third and fourth candidates are not running as the anti-gay or straight alternative to Dave and Craig. This may be the ultimate evolution of LGBT politics (or that of any other minority) where candidates are judged on their qualifications, records and the issues,” LaChey said.
Residents are less inclined to care, perhaps since they’ve had one gay mayor or the other for over a decade now. “Sexuality has nothing to do with it, they are two very unique candidates. May the best one win,” said Ferndale resident Keith Eagles.
Having Covey running against Coulter may seem like revolution or like drama to the larger press, but at a local level it’s no secret that the men share many of the same friends and voter base. The potential consequence of splitting that voter base may just mean that the city could end up losing their status as the only city with a gay mayor. In that case it could be the second time there has been a female one, with Mayor Pamela McCullough who was elected to serve as mayor in 1994. And while there are many women in political offices, the media still likes to portray female leadership as rare and progressive.
Whether this turns into a cliched battle of the sexes, a duel between two gay men, or an all-around royal rumble, to those who live in the community the diversity and debate over everyday issues are all just Ferndale normal.