Correction: This story has been updated to correct former Warren Mayor Mark Steenbergh's name.
Warren — Jim Fouts has been hunkered down inside City Hall for months, waiting out a political storm that’s showed few signs of clearing.
The 74-year-old mayor is rarely seen after audio recordings surfaced this winter in which he allegedly denigrated women, minorities and people with disabilities.
After nearly a decade in office, Fouts is facing calls for his resignation, fighting off recall petitions and enduring blistering criticism from elected officials and others normally silent about him.
And Fouts won’t budge.
The mayor of Michigan’s third-largest city is using Facebook to attack the media, colleagues and anyone who dares to say it’s his voice on the audio. He often declines to speak to the media, and gave his State of the City speech via video last month instead of facing a live community audience.
“This has been a relentlessness effort at political terrorism and character assassination since mid-December,” Fouts said in a recent Facebook post. “It’s clear that the dark forces in Warren politics want to seize control of the city and bring back business as usual.”
Meanwhile, elected officials and aides who have worked with Fouts say he’s a paradox: the longtime teacher rose to high office on an anti-establishment platform but now appears unchallenged at times within his administration.
And with his adoring support of believers behind him, Fouts, they say, is taking the gloves off to punish his enemies.
City Treasurer Lorie Barnwell, who called for Fouts to prove the voice on the tapes was not his or resign in January, has felt his jabs. Fouts removed her husband from the housing commission and then ordered Barnwell’s image and informational video be removed from the city’s website, she said.
Fouts and Barnwell, a candidate he backed for office, have traded barbs over accusations she hijacked his Facebook page, a claim she has denied.
“Their love for him is very personal,” Barnwell said of Fouts’ supporters. “He knows how to pull on people’s heart strings.
“What people don’t realize is the man behind the mask isn’t who they originally thought, isn’t who I originally thought. He chooses political loyalty and power over helping people.
“There’s a lot of darkness in him.”
Those who know him say Fouts — whose career began in Warren classrooms as a government and psychology teacher in the late 1960s before moving to the City Council in 1981 — is a quirky and complex man.
“He does possess that passion for the city, there’s no question about it because it’s the only thing he has, and it’s power,” said Louis Galasso, who was once a close confidant as the mayor’s appointed No. 2 in the Warren Police Department.
Galasso said the mayor seeks control and devotion.
“And it’s got nothing to do with him being a servant to the public. It’s got everything to do with needing to be called the mayor,” he said. “The position is immense to him. It’s bigger than life. It’s who he is and not what he’s about.”
As an educator for much of his life, Fouts was known for bringing in political and media stars, such as Gov. G. Mennen Williams, to his classroom.
As mayor, he has encouraged expansion from General Motors and Chrysler to construction of two new libraries. He has focused on ridding the city of blight in addition to addressing the “forgotten” southern neighborhoods by adding a satellite, 24-hour police station and a city hall office.
Fouts railed against the establishment until being elected mayor in 2007. Mark Steenbergh, who served his three terms as mayor until the then-city council president succeeded him because of term limits, was among those who took political fire from Fouts.
“I’ve never gotten in trouble for nothing,” Steenbergh said. “Now he’s got the dogs of war breathing down his neck, and boy, he can’t take it. He can sure dish it out, but he can’t take criticism.”
Fouts declined to be interviewed for this article.
In a phone call after being confronted at City Hall, he complained he would not participate in a “hatchet story” and when asked why people fear revenge if they speak about him, he did not answer. And last month, after inviting media for a news conference at his office, he bolted through the backdoor of his conference room without taking questions.
On his Facebook page, Fouts declared his enemies want him out.
“This is an ongoing effort at character assassination and political terrorism,” he wrote. “Apparently they have friends in the media and elsewhere willing to do whatever is necessary including more ‘phony’ tapes. It will only end with my death, resignation or recall.”
‘Good to the people’
Fouts’ popularity, residents and critics say, is rooted in his devoted catering to the needs of Warren’s residents, personally returning calls and addressing problems himself.
“He’s always friendly, and he’s always willing to help, he’s always willing to listen to you if you have something to say,” said Betty Wicinski, 88, of Warren. “Because we’re so old, he always seemed to appeal to us.”
Barbara Borys, 85, who has lived in Warren for more than 30 years, agreed.
“That’s why he’s been in office so long is because he’s been good to the people of Warren,” said Borys, before mentioning the recordings. “I have no gripes against him as far as I’m concerned. Now that other thing (the recordings) ... if he’s guilty of that, he needs to resign.”
Galasso said he believes the tapes are authentic because he’s heard the mayor disparage others during meetings.
“He would often times criticize people for being overweight or for smoking or for drinking,” he said. “He was just so mean-spirited, and he just didn’t care ’cause he was holding court.”
Galasso said he quit in spring 2015 after a week’s worth of Fouts peppering him about why a political rival, the late Richard Sulaka, didn’t receive a ticket with points for a minor traffic incident. Galasso said the responding officer didn’t believe a ticket was warranted. Fouts called Galasso for several days about the incident until he had harsh words for the mayor. Days later, Galasso retired.
“Unquestionably, he had great animosity for his political rivals, and it would cause him such angst that he would repeatedly bring them up,” said Galasso, recalling how Fouts’ ire would be on display at bi-monthly staff meetings.
At those meetings, Fouts would speak as if he were still a teacher handling class. Fouts’ constant reminder to them: Appointees can be unappointed.
With a clipboard, Fouts would also take attendance inside City Hall, multiple sources told The News, including Galasso, calling departments to check to make sure his appointees didn’t leave five minutes early.
From the personnel file
Government always seemed to be the future mayor’s destiny. The son of a former city manager of Hazel Park, Fouts mentioned in his teacher biography in the Warren Consolidated Schools in 1967 that his father’s involvement in government “has had a somewhat impressionable effect upon my interests and personal goals in life.”
Fouts, who has never married and has no children, has one sibling, Joyce Fouts, a longtime educator at Oakland University. She hung up recently when asked about her brother. Their parents are deceased.
The longtime Democrat and fan of Harry Truman in his early political life was the chairman of the Highland Park College Young Republican Club, according to his personnel file at Warren Consolidated Schools. Fouts taught government, psychology at the junior and high school levels as well as driver’s education. After running unsuccessfully for state representative, Fouts ran and won a council seat in 1981 while still teaching, sporting a beard and long hair.
Fouts retired as a teacher in 2005, two years before he ran for mayor and after more than two decades on council.
A peek into his teacher personnel file showed Fouts received praise in some years for his preparation, often times bringing in elected officials and community leaders to talk with students. He transferred from Warren High School to a few middle schools and then to Sterling Heights High School during his career.
Dave Walsh, an assistant superintendent in Warren schools, said he saw Fouts as a solid, hard-working teacher. He initially had concerns about Fouts using students for political gain but found no evidence of that happening.
“He made government relevant to kids versus we’re just going to learn about government out of a book,” Walsh said. “Jim did that also, but often Jim would have kids sign up for local projects that got them involved in community issues.”
Edmund Karner, who took government under Fouts at Sterling Heights High School and worked as an aide in the summer of 2008, said Fouts was “always a thoughtful, conscientious teacher who was enthusiastic about the subject.”
“I do not mean to suggest the man is a saint,” he said. “He is eccentric and certainly not above blue humor. With that said, the statements made on the tapes are so beyond the pale, so out of character for the man I know.”
‘He talks to anyone’
Fouts’ popularity among voters is often attributed to two of his most apparent qualities: exposure and availability.
On council, the top vote-getter wins the president’s seat, and Fouts held that role several times. He secured himself in that seat for being a campaigner who made himself accessible at all hours to residents.
“He talks to anyone who has a complaint,” said former Councilman Michael Wiecek, a friend of Fouts who served with him for 12 years and does not believe the voice on the tapes belong to Fouts. “He goes to their houses on many occasions. And that’s unusual.”
In Fouts’ most recent mayoral bid, he garnered more than 80 percent of the vote. He also flexed his political muscle to put weight behind candidates. And those he didn’t back usually lost.
Angelo Timonte, 90, who lives on Fouts’ block in Warren, knows what his neighbor means to fellow residents.
“The people I know, and I know a lot of people in the church (on their block), they all like him as mayor. They say as a mayor, you can’t beat him because he’s for the people 100 percent,” Timonte said.
‘He will bite you’
Those who have battled with Fouts often clashed with the mayor over his penchant to maximize attention for himself.
“One of the last meetings before he was elected mayor went until 5 in the morning,” said Kathy Vogt, who served on council with Fouts and ran unsuccessfully for mayor against him in 2011. “He was thrilled. He actually said this was a record, we’re going to make the next one go longer.”
Vogt added Fouts’ ego was immense: “You could never have a conversation with him unless it was about him.”
Carolyn Moceri, who also served with him on council and later as city treasurer, said when she was first elected, Fouts told her the most important thing was making sure the public saw him on the local TV station “doing the work for them.”
“Everything in his life is the city of Warren,” Moceri said. “He calls people back at 10 o’clock at night, he calls them back on Christmas Eve. It’s always about the city of Warren because it is, in effect, everything he has.”
Moceri said at one time before entering politics, she was a housewife who admired Fouts, and he motivated her to run for council. She felt his wrath when he campaigned against her to support Barnwell.
“I thought he was something ... that he was really for the people,” she said. “I found out that friend or foe, he treats you the same. He will bite you in the back.”