You Can Call Him Mayor

Or you can call him counselor. Ralph A. Castelli Jr. wears both hats well

Published in 2009 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2009

As a kid, Ralph A. Castelli Jr. took his cues from ’60s TV shows like The Defenders. Those on-air lawyers were honest and smart; dogged advocates for their clients. Castelli could see himself in their shoes.

He went on to become a business attorney, not a criminal defense lawyer like his TV icons. But he found an unexpected parallel career as a defender—of his hometown.

Castelli, CEO of Kemp Klein in Troy, is also serving his seventh term as mayor of Pleasant Ridge.

The son of a schoolteacher and a Ford Motor Co. accountant, Castelli, 56, grew up in neighboring Royal Oak and moved to Pleasant Ridge with his wife, Debbie, in 1979. As it turned out, the path to public service ran about 1,000 feet from their front door—in the form of Interstate-696.

In the mid-1980s, with the Michigan Department of Transportation trying to complete I-696 across the northern edge of Pleasant Ridge, then-Mayor Thomas Latta wanted a real estate lawyer on the planning commission. Castelli served on that commission for three years and the city commission for five. In 1993, Castelli beat out three other candidates for mayor. No one has run against him since.

“He didn’t do it for the glory of being mayor, and he doesn’t do it for the status,” says Debbie Castelli. “I think he likes protecting the city.”

The city fought MDOT for more than a decade over I-696, which consumed 10 percent of Pleasant Ridge’s tax base. Pleasant Ridge ultimately won a jury verdict of about $3.5 million just before Castelli took office. Cutting through 20 years’ worth of bad blood between the city and the state, Castelli negotiated a $4.25 million (including interest and attorneys’ fees) settlement with MDOT, avoiding the risk of a reversal on appeal. The interest from the settlement, combined with a 20-year millage, continues to finance improvements in Pleasant Ridge, one of the smallest incorporated cities in Michigan. Just over a half-mile square, it is filled with historic homes and marked by a distinctively small-town feel despite being a mile-and-a-half from Detroit. Residents (there are just about 2,600) know the people in city hall on a first-name basis.

The small-town vibe suits Castelli, whose childhood home was just a few blocks from Pleasant Ridge. His mother taught school in Berkley, a community two miles up Woodward Avenue.

“At 55, I still get told that, ‘I’ve known you since you were this high,’” he says. Being a mayor has made Castelli a better listener and given him more empathy for clients. Likewise—although Pleasant Ridge has a city attorney—he brings his legal experience to the mayor’s office, spanning everything from the freeway settlement to working on a strong yet flexible liquor-control ordinance.

Castelli says the lack of political gamesmanship in Pleasant Ridge—the city manager and city commissioners tend to work well together—is a big part of the reason he keeps running for re-election.

Pleasant Ridge City Manger Sherry Ball says, “The one thing that strikes me with Ralph, both as CEO of Kemp Klein and as CEO of the city of Pleasant Ridge, is a certain leadership quality that allows him to hear the full story, work with people who are angry or upset, and then work ... toward a solution. I’ve seen situations that had the potential to be blown way out of proportion, but Ralph has the talent of being able to calm the waters.”

Castelli plans to run at least one more time, though he says Debbie is always the last one to sign his ballot petition.

“We’re a small town,” he says. “We have one regular meeting a month. I make numerous phone calls to the city manager, and there are special meetings from time to time, but by and large it’s not as time-consuming as people think.”

One gets the sense, though, that Castelli doesn’t wait around for things to happen.

He started college three days after his high school graduation and flew through school, graduating from Michigan State University in three years—with honors. At 23, he finished law school at Wayne State University. Ten years later he merged his previous firm, Umphrey and Castelli, with Kemp Klein.

Castelli has been studying karate off and on since high school. The challenge and variety of the martial art resonates with him in a way that going nowhere on a treadmill or stationary bike never has.

“I don’t ‘go to the gym’ very well,” he says. “I don’t like to ride the bike, staring at the ceiling.”

At Kemp Klein, his responsibilities vary as chairman, CEO and managing partner, but practicing law is still his passion. As in his public-service career, he likes the unpredictability of problem-solving.

 “You may have your mind set on dealing with a certain set of issues on a given day, and a client may call with an emergency,” he says. “I like not necessarily knowing what any day is going to bring.”

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