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Why the mayor should step down

Kilpatrick's accomplishments make his fall from grace all the more a heartbreaker for many who once believed in him.
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Published 2/27/2008

The scene last week in the Detroit City Council chamber was deceptively cordial.

In a rare appearance before this city's legislative body, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick once again displayed many of the qualities that helped him become the youngest man to ever lead Detroit. The intelligence and command of facts, engaging manner and the ability to seem candid even under difficult circumstances — all were apparent as he sat calmly in the packed room, the focus of everyone's attention.

A respectful council asked tough questions — about police department staffing, about the budget and about plans to stimulate the local economy ... Kilpatrick fielded the council's queries with ease, taking a bit of blame for some of the problems, explaining away others with the promise that fixes were under way, all the while giving the impression that he was firmly in control and that the city is in capable hands.

Business as usual.

Except that we all know it is not business as usual in Detroit these days. The mayor's performance was a fig leaf unable to conceal the truth: He has failed this city and the voters who put their trust in him. His credibility is in tatters and his reputation indelibly stained. And as a result, this beleaguered city has become the punch line for jokesters from The Washington Post to Real Time with Bill Maher.

But he says he won't quit on us. Because, as he says, he's on a mission from God. And as for the scandal enveloping him and this city for the past month, well, as Kilpatrick told one local radio station, "God let this happen to me."

As if he were somehow hit by a random lightning bolt, and it was just him suffering the consequences of his actions. That one line says a lot: Whatever happens, it is all about Kwame Kilpatrick.

But it is not just about him. It is about this city, and the people who live and work here, the taxpayers who pay the mayor to represent our interests and improve our lot; it's about a region that has Detroit as its heart and the mayor of Detroit as its most prominent politician.

So, if what Kilpatrick says is true, and it was indeed his deity that somehow let all this happen, then we have a question for the theologians out there: What's God got against Detroit?

Because what God "let" happen to Kwame Kilpatrick has cost this impoverished city $9 million and counting. And that's just the part we can put a price tag on.

In 2002, Kwame Kilpatrick, then 31, strode into office carrying a world of promise on his massive shoulders, a young, charismatic politician whose future seemed to have no bounds. The voice of a new generation, he vowed that a resurgence, which took wing under Mayor Dennis Archer's administration during the 1990s, would gain even more impetus under his youthful, energetic leadership.

Kilpatrick pulled off hosting Super Bowl XL, revised development deals with the city's three casinos that resulted in permanent gambling houses and hotels being built, closed a deal to restore the landmark Book-Cadillac Hotel. The NEXT Detroit project is to revitalize six targeted neighborhoods over five years; Quicken Loans is to relocate its headquarters downtown. There have been years during his administration when, remarkably, Detroit has led the area in housing starts. The mayor has also made some unpopular but necessary changes, most notably the significant downsizing of the city's workforce to reflect the reality of a less populous city.

Those accomplishments make Kilpatrick's fall from grace all the more a heartbreaker for many of those who once believed in him.

But there is an even greater tragedy under way — the tragedy of a city that has long struggled to lift itself from urban decay and disinvestment only to find yet another massive impediment on its uphill road to recovery. The tragedy of a city that suddenly finds its attention focused not on revival efforts but rather speculation about whether its mayor is going to be charged with perjury, speculation about court maneuvers, about investigations, about the morning's headlines and sound bites in the city's ongoing soap opera.

"I keep trying to get attention focused on these very important issues — what to do with the waste incinerator, the issue of predatory lending and home foreclosures, regional transportation issues — but I can't get publicity for these things," says Councilmember JoAnn Watson. "The climate has been challenged by trust issues and integrity issues. The atmosphere here is very heavy with tension and drama. Business has not stopped, but it is a real challenge getting around the cloak of intrigue surrounding this crisis."

These are the questions occupying the minds of people not just in Detroit but throughout the metro area: Will Kwame Kilpatrick remain in office? And if he does, how effective a leader can he be after sustaining the immense political damage from a long-simmering scandal that boiled over last month when the Detroit Free Press uncovered tawdry text messages between the mayor and the woman who served as his chief of staff. (The Kilpatrick administration, for the record, has claimed — and the Freep has denied — that the messages were obtained illegally. The administration hasn't protested their accuracy.)

Text messages prove the mayor and his mistress, Christine Beatty, lied under oath while on the stand during a whistle-blower lawsuit last year, and lied for years before that after allegations of impropriety became public as far back as 2003.

Opinions vary as to whether the mayor can retain his office. The offspring of a powerful political family — his mother is a former state legislator and current member of Congress, and his father served as a Wayne County Commissioner and then chief of staff to former County Executive Ed McNamara — Kilpatrick might still defy the odds and keep calling the Manoogian Mansion home.

But doing so would not be in the best interests of Detroit.

Kilpatrick says he would never quit on this city. But he has already failed us.

Our city — just identified by Forbes magazine as America's worst big city — can no longer afford having Kwame Kilpatrick as mayor.

We can't afford the financial costs of Kwame Kilpatrick's blundering, bad judgment and arrogance. And we can't afford the distractions those character flaws have created.

We can't afford his lies and cover-ups. We certainly can't afford the divisiveness he fosters when, to divert blame for wrongdoing, he claims to be the victim of racism and mass media simply manufacturing scandal to boost television ratings and newspaper circulation. And that's not to overlook the wariness and hostility in some quarters to a thirtysomething African-American who dresses sharp and identifies himself as the hip-hop mayor.

Let's be clear about one thing: We would not be calling upon Kwame Kilpatrick to resign if all he'd done was have extramarital affairs come to light. History is filled with politicians similarly inclined, who managed to serve their constituents well. Even for a politician, there is such a thing as a personal matter.

Look at the sex ads in the back of this paper. No one has ever accused us of being prudes, or of pretending to be holier than thou. And we don't expect our politicians to be saints. We do, however, expect them to tell the truth, especially when they are on the witness stand and under oath.

Certainly the mayor would like to have us think that this scandal is all about the sex. Such a transgression should be easy to overlook, especially when the betrayed wife is willing to choke back humiliation as she steps stone-faced into the harsh spotlight and stands by her man.

If Carlita Kilpatrick can forgive Kwame's carousing, then we the public certainly should be able to do the same and accept his apology.

But for the public, there have been so many interlocked transgressions that we can't be exactly sure what he's apologizing for.

We do know this: He never issued a direct apology to the cops whose careers he ruined for doing nothing more than their jobs.

And that is what this is all about — that and the wave of problems those firings have created.

It is about a city swimming in red ink having to pay out nearly $9 million to three good cops who had their lives upended by a mayor who ruthlessly attacked them, slandering their reputations to protect himself.

No one should be surprised by all this. Evidence of Kilpatrick's reliance on mendacity as a handy political tool surfaced before.

When running against Gil Hill for mayor in 2001, Kilpatrick lambasted his rival for accepting campaign contributions from controversial attorney Geoffrey Fieger, a white suburbanite. That proved to be a mistake, because Fieger quickly responded by releasing a voice-mail message from Kilpatrick asking the lawyer to support his campaign.

During that same election, the mayor-to-be was asked about a $50,000 donation to one of his nonprofit entities from the operator of a homeless shelter himself under a legal cloud. Kilpatrick blithely responded that he would have asked Mother Teresa for a donation if she were still writing checks. Realizing afterward that it was probably a bad idea to be making that kind of crack about the sainted and deceased Nobel laureate, Kilpatrick, as The Detroit News reported at the time, then denied in a radio interview that he'd ever made so crass a comment.

The most blatant example came in early 2005, when Steve Wilson, the investigative reporter for television station WXYZ, discovered that the administration had surreptitiously leased a luxury Lincoln Navigator for the mayor's wife and children to be chauffeured around in. This when the administration was announcing the need for hundreds of layoffs to help address a projected $230 million budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.

What fueled the outrage was the fact that the cherry-red Navigator was leased for $24,995 — $5 below the limit that would trigger the need for City Council approval of the contract. Even worse was the fact that the initial response from Kilpatrick and his chief of police, Ella Bully-Cummings, was to say that the vehicle had been obtained for use by undercover narcs — because, apparently, that's the kind of flashy vehicle drug dealers roll in.

Kilpatrick finally fessed up, sort of, attributing his initial lies to "communication" problems. He promised to correct that by holding weekly news conferences; they lasted about six weeks, then he stopped showing up.

The Navigator fiasco seems like small change compared to the recent payout to cops, but at the time it seemed to offer the kind of concrete evidence that the public could wrap its mind around, the anecdote that illuminates a larger truth.

But 10 months later, the people of Detroit re-elected Kwame Kilpatrick to a second term as mayor.


REGIONAL EYES

When people talk about the need for southeast Michigan to come together and function as a cohesive region, they are not mouthing platitudes. They are acknowledging the realities of a global economy.

We will rise or fall as a region. And Kwame Kilpatrick is an impediment to regional cooperation because he fans the flames of racism — and the urban-suburban divide it helps create — every time he tries to use it as a defense.

That was never more apparent than when a jury of 11 whites and one black found in favor of two former cops who had filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against Kilpatrick, his chief of staff Christine Beatty and the city. Never mind that the two ex-cops — former Deputy Chief Gary Brown and Harold Nelthrope, who served on Kilpatrick's security detail — are also black. So is Walt Harris, another former Kilpatrick bodyguard who received a $400,000 settlement after claiming that he too was harassed after speaking out about problems with the mayor's security detail.

Kilpatrick took the same low road when locked in a vicious re-election battle against challenger Freman Hendrix in 2005. That was when one of Kilpatrick's campaign operatives ran a newspaper ad depicting the mayor as the victim of a media lynch mob. Among the members of this mob was Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry. Also pictured in the ad was radio talk show host Mildred Gaddis, who is an African-American. Kilpatrick never disavowed the ads. After he was re-elected, Gaddis says Kilpatrick sent her funeral flowers.

When Kilpatrick first ran for office, part of his promise was that his youth would help him break down the racial barriers that keep Detroit so terribly divided from the rest of this region.

Tom Barwin, then city manager for the city of Ferndale, looked forward to that promise being fulfilled. But he never saw it. Now manager for the village of Oak Park on the outskirts of Chicago, Barwin was a driving force behind formation of a coalition of older suburbs surrounding Detroit in 2002.

"When I was in Ferndale, we did what I thought was the closest thing to a miracle Detroit could ever hope for by forming the Michigan Suburbs Alliance," says Barwin. The nonprofit organization brought together older, inner-ring suburbs beginning to experience some of the same problems Detroit had been dealing with for decades. With issues such as smart growth and regional mass transit atop its agenda, and almost a million people in the cities represented, the group offered the prospect of being a powerful ally for Detroit.

"If I had been the mayor of Detroit and heard about what we were doing, I would have got down on my knees and thanked the Lord. But we couldn't even get in to see the mayor."

It was a huge disappointment.

"A lot of us were really enthused by the mayor's rhetoric when he was running for office," says Barwin. "That rhetoric may have even helped lead to our coalition-building."

But once Kilpatrick got into office, the tune changed.

"It was our clear impression that Detroit and the mayor were not understanding the real-world need to build coalitions," says Barwin. "The message we got was, 'We don't need any great white hope to come in and save us.' It was a continuation of metro Detroit's unfortunate racial stratification."

Looking at the situation from afar now, he sees Kilpatrick's current problems as doing even further damage to any prospects of regional bridge-building.

"If you lose your integrity, or are even perceived to have lost your integrity, it is tough to get much accomplished," he says.

And what does attempting to deflect blame by playing the race card do?

"In terms of public policy," Barwin says, "playing that card is a disaster."

But there's more than that one blunt club in our mayor's deck.

"Kwame Kilpatrick has consistently played three cards — the media card, the race card and the God card," says political consultant Sam Riddle. "And we can't let him get away with it anymore, because it is an insult to everybody."

In 2005, Riddle worked to help get Kilpatrick re-elected. Now he works as chief of staff for City Council President Pro Tem Monica Conyers. If Kilpatrick were to leave office early, Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. would move into the mayor's office and Conyers would become council president. But Riddle says his motivation for speaking out against Kilpatrick has nothing to do with helping his boss move up Detroit's political ladder.

"I helped get this guy re-elected," says Riddle. "But now I have to be on the opposite side. It is the decent thing to do. It is the right thing to do. This administration has institutionalized arrogance."

"This is a guy who had the whole national stage at his beck and call," says Riddle, observing that Kilpatrick had the potential to take the same meteoric rise now being experienced by Illinois Senator Barak Obama. Instead, a lack of "moral fiber" has caused that future to flame out.

"I'm disappointed," Riddle says, "and I'm acting on that disappointment by speaking out now."

Riddle describes a city government at war with itself, with the administration on one side of the barricade and the council on the other. Predicting that the situation is "going to get uglier before it gets better," he contends the administration is "mortally wounded."

But don't expect the mayor to suddenly decide to leave before forcing us all to suffer the agony of his administration's potential death throes.

Riddle isn't alone when he speculates that one reason Kilpatrick's refusing to resign now is to hold a bargaining chip; if Kilpatrick is indicted for perjury, he could use his exit as a way to negotiate a lesser charge or lesser penalties, much the same way former Vice President Spiro Agnew did when accused of corruption during his days in Richard Nixon's administration. Others speculate he'd rather fight the potential charges as mayor than as a private citizen.

Speaking of Nixon, people looking to make analogies between Kilpatrick's situation now and similarities to experiences occupants of the Oval Office have had might be better served paying more attention to Tricky Dick and less to Bill Clinton.

Yes, Clinton lied in a deposition and to the public about having sex with "that woman" Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton's dissembling was so far removed from the underlying crime being pursued by Special Prosecutor Ken Starr that few Americans could explain the connection even at the time. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, did more than lie about not having sex with former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty, who recently resigned in disgrace. The mayor and his mistress stopped an investigation by Internal Affairs head Gary Brown.

Brown was responding to allegations made by bodyguard Harold Nelthrope that Kilpatrick pals running his security detail (and facilitating his philandering) were adding hundreds of hours of unearned overtime to their pay sheets, and that these same guys had been drinking and driving city vehicles, allegedly resulting in at least one accident that was said to have been covered up.

And then there's the infamous party at the Manoogian Mansion — the party Attorney General Mike Cox declared "urban legend" after conducting an investigation that neglected to produce sworn statements from any potential witnesses. It's at this same party that never happened that Carlita Kilpatrick was rumored to have shown up unexpectedly and attacked and injured one of the strippers.

And Brown's investigation wasn't the only one that was shut down. After a stripper named Tamara Greene, who performed under the name Strawberry, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, the homicide investigator looking into that killing was transferred out of the unit and the case was prematurely put into the "cold case" file.

That cop, the now-retired Lt. Alvin Bowman, also sued, claiming he too was the victim of retaliation. A jury sided with Bowman in 2005, awarding him $200,000.

So you can add that to the tab of the party that never happened.

In addition, one consequence of the recent text message revelations is that a stalled lawsuit brought on behalf of Greene's children has been revived, with their attorney seeking yet more of the messages, and Greene's mysterious death again making headlines. (The Detroit Police Department has even asked the public for help with tips in the case in recent weeks.)

What's sad from a taxpayer perspective is that most of the $9 million that has been paid out so far could have stayed in the city's coffers instead of going into the pockets of wronged cops and attorneys. Brown — whose stature and sterling reputation leant credibility to all the allegations of retaliation — told Metro Times in the past that he would have walked from the force quietly if the Kilpatrick administration had just allowed him to retire as a deputy chief instead of first firing him, then lying about that and forcing his retirement at a lower rank and pay grade.

And here's another thing to remember about those text messages uncovered and published by the Free Press: They weren't all about illicit sex between Kilpatrick and Beatty. Some of them recorded a back-and-forth chat between the two as they discussed the need to fire Brown, something they claimed under oath not to have done.

That, however, doesn't guarantee the two will be convicted of perjury if charges they are brought by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. One legal expert we talked to, Detroit appellate attorney Mark Bendure, explained to us that proving the charge — which carries with it a potentially penalty of 15 years in prison for each lie told — can be more difficult than many laymen assume.

From questions about corroborating evidence to potential questions about the text messages under wiretap statutes, he describes this case as having "a whole lot of practical wrinkles." And those are aside from the politics of an elected prosecutor and a sitting mayor.

And, absent being forced from the mayoralty, there are plenty of people who believe that our mayor could remain in office at least until he's up for re-election again in 2009.

"Before this scandal, I told people he could be mayor for as long as he wanted. Now I'm not saying that," says Ollie A. Johnson III, an assistant professor of African studies at Wayne State University who has written extensively on black politics in America and Latin America.

But he isn't predicting an early exit for Kilpatrick either.

"He still has that talent for connecting with people and making things happen."

The mayor can still count on a certain level of support from black churches, black activists and black media. There have been no large shows of support for the mayor — at least not yet — like the letter of support signed by 150 Detroit ministers in the last election race. "He's an embarrassment to this city and to his supporters and that's just the reality of the situation," says Johnson.

On the other hand, adds Johnson: "I think it is very difficult to predict how it's going to eventually be resolved because there are so many potential variables at play. He shouldn't be counted out."


THE SURVIVOR

If he does stay in office, how effective can Kilpatrick be?

No one we've talked to predicts the city will grind to a halt, but many worry about how much a city facing enormous challenges can get done with the multiple distractions of courts, investigations and newspaper headlines.

One investment counselor with a number of wealthy clients who do business in Detroit told us that as long as there's money to be made here, people will continue to invest no matter who it is in the mayor's office that's cutting deals.

That may be true, but getting anything achieved for the foreseeable future is, at very best, going to be a much more difficult task for the Kilpatrick administration than it has been in the past.

"There's no way he can continue to exert power and influence the way a popular incumbent could," says Bill Ballenger, editor of the publication Inside Michigan Politics. "A lot of the mayor's power is derived from people being afraid of him coming down on them and playing hardball. But no one is fearing him now. He's like a drowning man reaching for a life raft."

Political consultant Riddle made a similar observation:

"What's the incentive for people to cut a deal with a mayor whose longevity is suspect, and whose word is suspect? Where's the incentive to do business with him if he might not be around to close the deal?"

There's no telling what surprises the coming days and weeks could bring. The state Supreme Court could issue its ruling regarding the disclosure of secret documents associated with the whistle-blower case at any time.

Moreover, the Free Press still has those 14,000 text messages in its possession. During a recent appearance on the local public radio program Detroit Today, M.L. Elrick, half of the reporting team that broke the text message story, said that there is much more there than what has been reported so far, and that more stories are in the works.

And then there's the City Council, which Riddle says could be the real wild card in this deck. He explains that, according to the City Charter, council has the ability to hold "Watergate-style hearings, complete with subpoenas," and that if the mayor is found to be in violation of the charter — by using public office for private gain, to cite just one example — council could force his removal from office.

In addition, the city's Board of Ethics was asked last week to evaluate a complaint filed against Kilpatrick as a result of the recent revelations. The board has the power to investigate complaints against public officials and recommend forfeiture of office to the City Council.

Beyond that, the City Council has hired its own attorney — esteemed civil rights litigator Bill Goodman — to represent that body. Last week Goodman filed documents with the state Supreme Court urging disclosure of the whistle-blower case documents the Kilpatrick administration is trying to keep secret. The council approved the settlement after being kept in the dark about the full agreement.

Two lower courts have already ruled against the administration, and experts say it is highly unlikely the Supreme Court would overturn those decisions.

Attempts by the administration and its lawyers to defend their position have been positively Orwellian in terms of the doublespeak being unleashed. They are in the unenviable position of trying to convince the public that documents they initially claimed didn't exist somehow haven't been kept secret while at the same time declaring the attempts to keep the information secret is really in the best interest of all of us.

In his court filings, Goodman quoted a ruling by the highly respected Detroit jurist Damon Keith, senior judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

"Democracies die behind closed doors," wrote Keith. "When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation."

Aside from the outrage of trying to keep public information hidden, if the administration loses, as is highly likely, the city will almost certainly be required to pick up the tab for lawyers representing Detroit's two daily papers attempting to bring the documents into the public realm. That's a provision of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.

The mayor, in this regard, has shown absolutely no compunction about wasting our money.

Yet he continues to vow that he won't quit on us. Even though he has failed us in so many ways.

In an appearance on the NPR program News and Notes, Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, observed that the question of whether Kwame Kilpatrick violated the law remains unanswered for the time being. But, she concluded, one thing is obvious:

"He is a huge embarrassment and in a way it would just be much better if he would simply resign."

We agree.

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