Michiana's New Mayors: A conversation with Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad

Published: Feb. 23, 2016 at 12:12 PM EST
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Three Michiana cities have a new mayor at the helm.

In Goshen, long-time Mayor Allan Kauffman decided not to run again. Over in Elkhart and up in Benton Harbor, the voters decided it was time for "out with the old and in with the new."

For the next three nights, I'll sit down with the men now running those cities.

On Tuesday I start my conversation with Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, taking a look at some of the things you may not have known about him.

Mayor Muhammad started our sit-down with how he got started in politics. "I started on the Planning Commission and I was first appointment by Mayor Wilce Cooke. That was my first brush and then I ran in 2009 and was elected."

He was then elected to the city council, where he served for six years.

A native son, Muhammad moved to Benton Harbor as a young child to live with his father.

He recalls fondly his days growing up in Michigan. "My days growing up in Benton Harbor, I have very fond memories. I met a lot of wonderful people, a lot of great mentors, challenges... however, so was life."

And a big part of his life included his years as a student in Benton Harbor. "I was on the quiz bowl team for science because I was on the honors track."

Everyone who has lived in Benton Harbor as long as Mayor Muhammad has also knows he was a star athlete, playing basketball at Benton Harbor High School during the glory days. "I was grabbed by sports at an early age. We had some wonderful teams. We went to the semi-finals as a sophomore. Jalen Rose and Chris Webber were on there. Junior-senior year we lost in the state finals, so we had a tremendous run. We were at the top of Michigan basketball."

That led the mayor, then known as Marcus Singer before converting to Islam, to Chicago's DePaul University where he continued his basketball career.

He traveled around the country, from Miami to Santa Barbara and, of course, Indiana. He proudly showed me the shot he made at the United Center that broke the all-time three point record for DePaul. He called it "a defining moment."

A Broadcast Journalism and Psychology major at DePaul, he also took an interest in Chicago politics, recalling all the heavy hitters. "Boy that was an awesome experience. It was like I got my bachelor's degree from DePaul and my master's degree from the downtown streets of Chicago."

He watched a number of notables rise to power while living in the Windy City. "Actually, Mayor Daley studied at DePaul and many other politicians, Eddie Burke as well. I had the opportunity to observe, of course, Mayor Daley at that time. Now Mayor Emanuel was rising politically, Blagojevich, Jesse Junior, state senator at the time Barack Obama."

In 2003 he returned to his native Benton Harbor, where he coached basketball at his alma mater and is now the assistant associate coach for the girls basketball team.

And while he spent six years on the city council, he says he never intended to run for mayor. "I wanted to just make a difference, but I saw where some things could be done from the mayor's office that could contribute, and I decided that after six years I am going to throw my hat in.

After unseating Mayor James Hightower, Mayor Muhammad knows he has a lot of work to do. "I think the first priority after being the first mayor post emergency management is to reconnect the residents to the local government. It was a very traumatic experience to have an individual, who was not from our community and was not elected -- was appointed by people that the residents don't even know -- to come in and throw the mayor out of his office and start executing new policies. And I see our educational system, which is struggling financially, which some would say is a negative, and you surely need money to run an educational institution. However, I see great good and I see great strides. Of course, crime... Although our circumstances are not what we would like, you know in certain respects however, I think the political will is there as well as support that is coming from the surrounding communities."

And Mayor Muhammad says his wife of 15 years and his seven children keep him on focus. "I am blessed tremendously with a wonderful family, and that really keeps me grounded."

Just like during his days playing for the Tigers or college ball at DePaul, he plans to aim for the rim and never look back, knowing he returned to Benton Harbor for all the right reasons. It's a city that he hopes, with the help of the people, will return to its glory days. "I wouldn't change one moment. I am proud to say I am from Benton Harbor."

Wednesday night, Just Before Six, I'll sit down with Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, who happens to be the youngest mayor in Goshen history.