Will he or won't he? Of possible re-election bid, indicted Detroit Councilman Leland says 'stay tuned'

January 28, 2021, 10:31 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

District 7 Councilmember Gabe Leland

Detroit city councilmember Gabe Leland has remained in office for more than two years since he was charged with taking a bribe from a local business owner, a solicitation the FBI says it has on a wire recording.

Now, with an election approaching and no felony conviction to bar him from serving, he’s considering running again.

According to Police Commissioner William Davis, one of Leland’s would-be opponents, the District 7 councilman told him in December that he would seek re-election this fall. Leland is said to have said the same to at least one constituent.

When reached by Deadline Detroit, the 38-year-old councilmember declined to share his plans, but told us repeatedly to “stay tuned.”

“I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at, so stay tuned, as they say.”

The son of the late longtime state Rep. Burton Leland of Detroit, Gabe joined city council in 2014, after being term-limited in the state House.

A felony conviction would preclude Leland from holding state or local office, but his bribery case in federal court has dragged on, with a judge granting eight continuances — the latest through May.

In a jurisdictional twist, those federal charges are likely to be dropped and Leland is expected to plead guilty to a less serious charge of misconduct in office, filed in July in state court, for accepting a campaign contribution in cash. That case is being handled by the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office due to a conflict of interest involving Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

But more than six months after the state charges were filed, that case is languishing too, leaving the door open for Leland to remain on council. No plea date has been set, and it’s not clear why. Multiple calls and emails to the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office seeking an explanation were not returned.

“It’s a good question as to what is holding up a resolution if the purpose of transferring the case to state authorities was to work out a deal — why hasn’t that happened,” said Larry Dubin, a criminal law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.

However, he said cases involving politicians often take longer than others.

“There’s a certain sensitivity to the time factor that’s almost built into … a case that has political consequences,” he said. “The defense lawyer in this case is very experienced and his sense of timing is certainly going to play a part of if and when there’s an agreement.”

Bob Carmack (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

Many of Leland’s critics say he benefits from white privilege. The lone white member of city council, Leland has continued to serve without restriction since he was indicted for soliciting a $15,000 bribe from businessman Bob Carmack in exchange for a promise of help with a land dispute.

By contrast, former Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, who is serving prison time for having sex with a teenaged boy, was stripped of his duties and salary by then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. However, in that case, Pugh skipped town without explanation — effectively abandoning his job.

The only councilmember to speak on the lack of action against Leland is Roy McCalister, a former police officer who’s said stripping Leland of his committee assignments or preventing him from voting on contracts would be unfair to the residents who elected him.

But the disparate treatment extends to the way the case has played out in the judicial system, said Detroit Charter Commission vice chair Nicole Small, who has hammered Leland on her 910AM radio show in recent weeks.

“There are two sets of rules,” said Small. “The lack of prosecutorial action that happens when it’s a Black elected official versus a white elected official — the disparities are just glaring,”

She notes that former Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano escaped charges in a corruption probe that saw his top aides sent to prison; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan did not face charges in a demolition probe launched after his team held a pre-bid meeting that gave an unfair advantage to three firms; and that former Governor Rick Snyder is facing only a misdemeanor in the Flint water case.

She said the chance Leland would run again shows he holds “his constituency in such low regard.”

“I don’t know if this is arrogance, entitlement or what, but for you to engage in a corrupt act at the expense of the people ... I don’t know what else the people of District 7 would need to see or hear to understand he doesn’t care about them,” said Small.

Leland declined to speak to the charges against him, citing the legal case. But he said he felt he’d done a good job representing residents in his district and that he hoped to continue to do so if given the chance.

“I haven’t let this get in the way of my ability to continue what I started, which was helping residents with quality of life issues,” he said. “People want to make it seem like this is completely dominating my life and I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying I’m still the same person with the same passion for the community that I was when I was elected and I’m gonna continue to do the best job I can for as long as I can.”

As of Monday, he had not taken any steps to run again, including obtaining petition forms from the clerk’s office, which he has until April to submit. He has not received a campaign contribution since 2017, unlike colleagues who received donations steadily through last year, and his last major expenditures were to fend off an unsuccessful recall effort in 2019.

He has in recent weeks sent a mailer to residents from his city office.

Leland was re-elected in 2017 with about 2,800 votes. Davis said he was concerned that even with limited campaigning, he could be re-elected on name recognition in a divided race.

Others planning to run for District 7 include Detroit charter commissioner Joanna Underwood, Detroit planning commissioner Angy Webb, and former Detroit police officer John Bennett, who lost to Leland in 2013 by fewer than 50 votes.

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