Raquel Castañeda-López won’t seek third term on Detroit’s council
Detroit – Raquel Castañeda-López, a social and environmental justice attorney and the first Latina to be elected to Detroit City Council, will not seek a third term.
The 39-year-old lifelong Southwest Detroit woman nearing the end of her second four-year term as electoral representative for District 6 of the city told The Detroit News that she will return to her roots as a lawyer.
“I never thought that I would ever be a councilor in my life. I am someone who grew up in poverty, a first-generation student, not a typical politician at all,” said an emotional Castañeda-López decision, “bittersweet”.
“It has been the honor of my life, my home, my city, my community so far,” she said.
Castañeda-López, a social worker, first prevailed in 2013 in a monumental race in which seven out of nine council members were elected by the district for the first time in almost 100 years. The voting configuration was adopted as part of a 2012 revision of the City Charter.
She accepted nominations in December as she debated whether to seek a third term. However, she said that during the pandemic, she spent up to 12 hours a day helping constituents connect with resources to convince them to focus on efforts that support racial and social justice.
“It has been a strong personal and professional experience to be the first (Latina) and the only one,” she said. “For so many people, I represent diversity in and of itself, the chance you can have when you have different voices at the table.”
Castañeda-López said she falls short of lifelong Detroit woman Gabriela Santiago-Romero in the race for District 6, which she helped recruit. The University of Michigan alum is also a social worker, she noted.
“It’s about choosing officials who boldly lead with justice, access and inclusion,” she said. “That is why I made this difficult decision to step out of this role on the council to recruit and support others.”
Santiago-Romero, a policy and research director for We The People Michigan, told The News that she submitted her nominations on Monday. The Mexican immigrant also grew up in poverty in southwest Detroit and said Castañeda-López asking her to join the race was “like a dream come true”.
“I have a passion for people and especially for my people and my community,” said Santiago-Romero. “That’s why I’m doing this. It’s very personal. I don’t think it’s fair that we have to overcome all these barriers.”
During her tenure, Castañeda-López made access to languages a priority and ensured city policies and services were translated for Spanish and Arabic speaking voters. Its employees also reflect the ethnicities of their diverse district, said US Representative Rashida Tlaib, who originally recruited Castañeda-López to the leadership.
“It really changed the way people are seen and how people are represented locally,” said Tlaib, D-Detroit. “She urged to ensure that the city government also takes into account the diversity of her district.”
Castañeda-López ran a municipal identity card program for residents who were unable or not allowed to apply for a state ID but wanted access to services. She also drafted the resolution approved in 2017 that replaced Detroit’s Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
In the environmental sector, she drafted a long-debated ordinance that was passed in 2017 to regulate the handling of petroleum coke and other solid bulk materials to protect the health of Detroit residents. After the dock collapsed in November 2019, Castañeda-López also sponsored the Detroit River Protection Ordinance to strengthen inspection and maintenance regulations for companies operating near the riverbank. She hopes the laws will be passed before her term ends later this year.
Castañeda-López and Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield partnered with grassroots and social justice organizations last year to develop the Detroiters Bill of Rights, a set of community-sponsored recommendations aim to make the city more inclusive for under-represented citizens.
Branden Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Action, a group that advocates housing and economic justice, said Castañeda-López is a voice for working-class color communities across the city.
She’s not the one holding up the status quo, added Snyder, who worked with the councilor on amendments to the Detroit City charter to address public safety, access to water, housing and a number of other community-related issues.
“Raquel was deep in the weeds to make change,” he said.
Denzel McCampbell, a Detroit Charter Commissioner and candidate for Detroit City Clerk, added that Castañeda-López brought community organization to the elected office and is consistently visible in her district.
“Raquel embodies that,” he said. “The residents will leave a high bar that people can reach.”
Castañeda-López often casts votes that the majority of her colleagues disagree with. That month, she was the only member to vote no on the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, referring to a desire to reallocate $ 40 million from the Police Department’s $ 327 million budget for social services.
Serving on the council, she said, was an honor, but also “a very heavy burden”.
“It’s not an easy position, but when I think of all the challenges that arise from interacting with colleagues or in the community, I have grown tremendously.”
Castañeda-López pushed for on-the-job training for council members earlier this year, arguing that she and her team have experienced hostility and intimidation in the workplace since taking office in 2014.
The request came more than a year after the city’s Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunities Department released a report requested by President Brenda Jones after Castañeda-López made the claims in 2019. The investigation found that there was insufficient evidence of hostility or discrimination.
Ru Shann Long from District 6 said Castañeda-López worked to unite neighborhoods and inspired them to become more involved.
“Before her, I don’t think I’ve ever had contact with a councilor,” said Long, 67, a 60-year-old resident of southwest Detroit. “Your door was always open, even if we may not agree.”
Castañeda-López said she doesn’t know what’s next, but she won’t go far.
“I’m not leaving. Detroit is my home,” she said. “I will always be committed to this city.”