---- — SOUTHFIELD (AP) — Brenda Lawrence was raised by a grandmother who never sought political office, nor was she much for politics. Yet the elder woman's words and deeds have inspired and sustained Lawrence through nearly two decades of elected public service.
"She taught me that there is no one on this earth greater than me. I can walk among kings and queens and mighty people and I'm never to hold my head down because they are not better than me," says Lawrence, the mayor of Southfield who is on the Democratic ticket to become Michigan's next lieutenant governor.
"But she also taught that I was never to look down at anyone. If I was ever in a position where someone was in need, then I was put there to help them and I should reach down and pull them up. That's kind of my fiber — it's who I am."
Lawrence, 55, says her grandmother was a staple in her Detroit neighborhood because she helped other people and saw it "as her role to counsel." She believes that inherited sense of service is what first got her involved in Southfield schools' parent-teacher associations, then onto the district's board of education and city council, and ultimately the mayor's office — where she has been since 2001.
Lawrence, married with two children, was re-elected mayor last year by a large margin.
"If there is an open house at a school, I still show up. I'm there and I'm shaking hands," says Lawrence, speaking on a recent morning at a coffee shop across from Southfield's city hall.
Lawrence says her strong support and success in Southfield led Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero to select her as his running mate.
She counts among her accomplishments helping the city maintain a strong bond rating and downsizing government without layoffs or raising taxes in a time of deep economic trouble in Michigan.
"It's powerful to be a mayor in state government," she says. "It's powerful to have the knowledge base of two major cities."
Her city is increasingly diverse, with a rising population of blacks, Orthodox Jews and people who trace their roots to Asia and the Middle East. But it's also suffered high commercial vacancies — a trend Lawrence and other city leaders are trying to reverse through trade missions and meetings with prospective companies.
Officials also have worked to lower the city's high home foreclosure rate with blight enforcement and an ordinance requiring home owners and banks to register their vacant houses. Federal neighborhood stabilization money is used by the city to buy up empty houses.
Still, Lawrence's success hasn't come without pain. She was the first female and first African-American elected mayor of Southfield, unseating nearly 30-year incumbent Donald Fracassi.
"I was told that I would never win, the business community wouldn't want me, there was all kinds of stereotypes because I was a woman and African-American, this is a man's city because it's a business-corporate community," Lawrence says.
She and Fracassi clashed frequently, and the hatchet wasn't buried until after Fracassi was elected to council in 2003. They endorsed each other in their respective runs for city office last year.
"It was kind of uncomfortable at the beginning — we both had different viewpoints of how to run the city," Fracassi says. "I think we both worked to make sure we worked together for the sole purpose of making the city a better place."
Fracassi, now council president, described Lawrence as ambitious — "not to settle in the spot but to achieve more." He says he wasn't being critical, but contrasted that with his desire to remain mayor and serve only the city.
He says Bernero's selection of Lawrence as a running mate is just such an opportunity, and an honor.
"It means that people have recognized our city being well-run, top of the heap," he says. "I think that's good for her and good for the city."
While gaining statewide recognition and support is more challenging — she lost badly in her attempt to unseat GOP Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in 2008 — many in Southfield clearly know who Lawrence is. The hourlong coffee shop interview is interrupted several times by a "Hi, mayor!" from a customer, or a "How're you doing?" or "Good to see you!" from Lawrence.
Sipping a chai tea latte, Lawrence says in her downtime she likes to listen to all kinds of music, and ticks off some favorites: Luther Vandross, Celine Dion and hometown favorite Aretha Franklin. Lawrence counts the Queen of Soul among her friends.
She says she also loves to travel and has become an admirer of architecture while crisscrossing the state. She even loves campaigning, she says, because a politician is never more engaged with the voter.
"I love the pushback — 'Tell me about this, I'm concerned about that,'" she says. "That to me is democracy at its best."
On her way out of the cafe, she approaches a young man in a sweat shirt sitting at a table, huddled over his laptop. Although this wasn't a campaign stop, she extends her hand, introduces herself and tells him she's running for lieutenant governor.
"I can't pass up a voter," she says.