A “Renegade” Official in Detroit Meets Cheers – and Some Jeers

John Olumba, a state representative in Michigan, says he is not bound to either the Democrats or Republicans, but to the people in his district.

Posted: 03/20/2013 10:33 AM EDT
John Olumba

If nothing else, John Olumba has a history of going against the grain of conventional politics.

Olumba, a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from a district in Detroit, has made a practice of being a dissident voice in the state. In the process, he has perturbed the politicians and endeared himself to his constituents in the city’s northern neighborhoods.

His latest act of political defiance was to leave the Democratic Party to become an independent, a move that was born out of pure frustration, he says. The Republicans have long ignored Black voters, but the Democrats’ actions have not matched their rhetoric, he said.

“The Democratic Party in Michigan and, particularly, the Democratic caucus in the state capital have disappointed me,” Olumba said, in an interview with BET.com. “They are not putting their resources in things to allow African-Americans to get the support they need.”

For example, he explained that the Democrats could have pushed harder to develop strategies to block or delay legislation that allowed the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to appoint an emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit.

“We had opportunities to block that bill in the legislature,” Olumba said. “But the Democratic caucus didn’t do anything. I had tried to get them to support a plan that would have delayed the implementation of the bill. But the Democrats refused.”

Olumba, who is 31, is widely considered to be either one of the freshest voices among the new generation of Detroit politicians or a perennial irritant, depending on the point of view of the observer.

The decision to become an independent angered his fellow Democrats in Lansing, the state capital. "They consider me to be something of a renegade," he explained, adding that officials of his former party shut down his legislative web site in retribution. But Olumba says he had heard nothing but support from people in his community. “The people understand that I don’t view politics in the way that most elected officials do,” he said. “I am committed to the people in my community and in their interests.”

He is particularly outspoken about the decision of the governor to appoint an emergency financial manager for Detroit. He, like many elected officials and activists, contend that it was a move to take power away from elected officials and cripple African-American electoral power in Michigan’s largest – and most Democratic voting – city.

“The proliferation of emergency managers in Michigan in primarily African-American communities is an injustice,” Olumba said. However, he adds that the appointment of the manager might have the effect of curbing what he calls a culture of corruption that has permeated Detroit politics and that culminated with the conviction on federal racketeering charges of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

“I think that the installation of the emergency manager could be an opportunity for a new generation of politicians -- true public servants -- to arise in Detroit and we can move the previous corrupt factions to the side,” he said.

Olumba was born in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan. He attended law school at Northern Illinois University and did further study at the University College of London. He went to work for a law firm in Chicago and became interested in politics.

“In Chicago, I saw Black people really being effective in their politics there,” he said, “They convinced me that defending people accused of crimes was fine, but that I could be more effective for the community to shape policy as a politician.”

He returned to his native Detroit and ran for the state House of Representatives, winning a crowded primary with 16 people by a 2-to-1 margin over the closest competitor.

Olumba, who is a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the son of a Nigerian father and American mother. “Although, I am one of the first politicians, I come from a long line of activists, judges, chiefs in America and Nigeria,” he said. “I have found that as I grow in my faith, Christianity, the feeling, the thirst for justice, has intensely deepened.”

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(Photo: John Collins/Chase Photography)

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