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Two who made a difference

Jack Lessenberry

For the last several weeks or months I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about politicians, usually people who want you to think they have accomplished more than they have, and are now promising to do more than they can possibly do.

As long as you vote for them, that is. Well, two people died in the last few days who spent their lives doing more than most people realized, and who weren’t very well known.

One was Esther Shapiro. If you lived in the Detroit area between the 1970s and the late 1990s, and listened to the AM all-news station, you likely remember her soft, little old lady voice giving consumers advice on how to avoid being ripped off.

“Esther Shapiro, consumer affairs director,” she would say with precise diction. Many thought she worked for the radio station, but she didn’t. She served for many years as consumer affairs director for the city of Detroit.

When I first started listening to her I thought she might have been a retired home economics teacher, but I was way off. She and her late husband Harold had been civil rights radicals back in the day. During World War II, when she was pregnant, they were evicted from their apartment in Tacoma, Washington because they were discovered having black people over for dinner.

So they moved to Detroit, where in 1947, they both met and became best friends with a young black union organizer named Coleman Young. The popular mythology is that Detroit’s first black mayor hated white people. That was anything but true.

He was loyal to those who had been loyal to him. The Shapiros were family to Mayor Young, and he appointed her consumers’ affairs director. When I last talked with her this spring, she was 98 – and urging me to look at the business dealings of an apartment complex she felt was ripping off residents.

Maury Kelman was even less widely known than Shapiro – except for the hundreds, maybe thousands of law students he mentored during the many years he was a law professor at Wayne State University. He was also special counsel and speech writer to former Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh, in another age.

But he never really retired. Six years ago, Kelman came to me to protest that Kwame Kilpatrick had been using campaign funds to pay his lawyers – which he felt was clearly improper. He and I then jointly badgered officials until Secretary of State Ruth Johnson finally agreed and asked that the former mayor be fined a million dollars. That was purely symbolic, since Kilpatrick was already in prison and penniless.

But within a year, the legislature unanimously passed a law to prevent any politicians or officeholders who faced criminal charges from using their campaign funds to pay their lawyers. They should have called it the Kelman law, but they didn’t.

I have no doubt that Flint and Grand Rapids and other cities have people like these two, working hard to make their community, state and society a better place, and never claiming they can do it all themselves.

This state is lucky enough to have unsung heroes like Esther and Maury, striving away from the spotlight to make life slightly more fair. When you vote this fall, think about that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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