Kilpatrick's rise and fall
- Kilpatrick's rise and fall
BY BILL McGRAW FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER September 5, 2008
Kwame Kilpatrick entered the mayor's office with extraordinary gifts --
charisma, savvy, flair, pedigree, connections, ambition and chutzpah --
everything a 31-year-old needed to make a difference in one of the nation's
most broken cities. His departure, after the prolonged, debilitating and
often circus-like drama of the text message scandal, is a stunning downfall
for someone with his golden résumé.
At 26, he won election to the Michigan House of Representatives. At 30, the
Democratic Leadership Council named him one of 10 Democrats younger than 40
in the nation to watch, and he addressed the Democratic National Convention.
And at 31 he became the youngest mayor in Detroit's history.
It is a remarkable downfall, too, because Kilpatrick, now 38, projected a
self-confidence that bordered on arrogance, guided by a messianic sense of
"I believe I'm on an assignment from God," he said in February when
discussing his refusal to resign after the text message scandal broke.
From his exhilarating 2002 inaugural, in which he urged metro Detroiters to
"rise up" and help him resurrect Detroit, Kilpatrick's downward spiral of
minor and major transgressions gradually transformed him from an
inspirational leader filled with the promise of bigger things to a criminal
defendant with 10 felonies hanging over his head who spent a night in the
Wayne County Jail for a bond violation.
Had Kilpatrick's ethical compass been more finely calibrated over the past
six years, he almost certainly would have enjoyed the limelight at the
Democratic National Convention this summer along with such new-generation
black mayors as Newark's Cory Booker and Philadelphia's Michael A. Nutter.
Instead, Kilpatrick was confined to the tri-county area, yoked to a tracking
satellite by ankle tether, his plight encapsulated by the shadowy photo from
his video arraignment on charges of assaulting two subpoena-serving
investigators in which he stood submissively, bathed in an eerie blue light,
looking like a prisoner in a sci-fi film.
An example of the best -- and worst -- of Detroit
Kwame Malik Kilpatrick will be remembered for many things as mayor. His
6-foot-4, broad-shouldered physique, coupled with a charismatic personality,
enabled him to dominate any event he attended.
He cruised the city in a chauffeur-driven black Escalade, accompanied by a
sizable entourage. Many big-city mayors have more modest profiles. In New
York, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg often takes the subway to work,
accompanied by one police bodyguard.
Kilpatrick also rode a Harley around town, showed up at churches and clubs,
chummed around with his three cute young boys and early on became known as
"America's hip-hop mayor."
In the beginning, Kilpatrick's age, energy and lifestyle refreshingly set
him apart from virtually all other major local officeholders in memory.
Though nurtured in the black nationalist Shrine of the Black Madonna, to
which his parents belonged, Kilpatrick was a product of the post-civil
rights era, and at times he appeared to have escaped metro Detroit's racial
In May 2004, he traveled to Livingston County and told a luncheon gathering
that the region needed to move beyond the trauma of the 1967 riot -- and
race -- in order to thrive.
"We've got to be able to recover from it so we can have intelligent
discussions about how we drive our economies," Kilpatrick said as the crowd
rose to give him an ovation.
By contrast, during the 2001 election campaign he cracked that much of
Michigan is the "Mississippi of the North" because of anti-Detroit
sentiment, and he used race as a weapon this year after his criminal
As city leader, Kilpatrick largely charmed metro Detroit businesspeople, who
contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns and various
political funds -- some of which have come under question -- and were among
the last to speak out against his behavior. He cast a spell on Wall Street
analysts, who generally approved of his efforts to stabilize Detroit's
fragile budget, which included borrowing tens of millions of dollars.
At his best, Kilpatrick called to mind an energetic, young Detroit. At his
worst, he stood for a corrupt rust belt city that seems to be running out of
luck and time.
"What more indignity can a great American city take?" a columnist asked in
August in the Independent of London, England.
"Its main industry is falling apart; the mayor hailed just seven years ago
as its saviour has turned into a national joke. ... Now a house there has
just sold for exactly $1, as much as a McDonald's cheeseburger, but only
after a three-week wait for a buyer."
In his 6 1/2 years in office, Kilpatrick racked up significant achievements,
but his indiscipline and misdeeds always seemed to get in the way. And he
frequently found himself issuing apologies, even long before the scandal
"Detroit, I've made some mistakes," Kilpatrick said in an extraordinary ad
he used to kick off his 2005 re-election campaign. It was a reference to
first-term blunders and embarrassments like the infamous Navigator scandal
and his misuse of his city-issued credit card for meals at swanky
restaurants and elaborate trips and accommodations for himself and others.
He added: "But I have never disrespected the office of mayor or Detroit's
New mayor promises better for his hometown
After Mayor Dennis Archer decided not to run for re-election in 2001,
Kilpatrick jumped in. He was 30 and had served four successful years in the
state legislative seat that formerly belonged to his mother, Carolyn Cheeks
Kilpatrick, who had moved on to the U.S. Congress.
He later said he made his decision to run after opening a Bible and, of all
passages, stumbling onto Second Samuel, in which David is depicted as taking
control of Judah -- at age 30.
His slogan became "Our Future: Right Here, Right Now," and he defeated City
Council President Gil Hill, who was 39 years his senior. Among his early
supporters was power broker Ed McNamara, the Wayne County executive whose
chief of staff was Bernard Kilpatrick, the mayor's father.
With his youth and enthusiasm on top of his other gifts, Kilpatrick seemed
to have unlimited promise.
At the first inauguration, the multigenerational Kilpatrick and Cheeks
families filled the first rows of the Fox Theatre and warmed the hearts of
Detroiters as the new mayor delivered a stirring speech. At the end of the
ceremony, the Winans singing group asked those in attendance to join hands
and sing along.
On stage, Archer and Kilpatrick, Detroit's 59th and 60th mayors, clasped
hands and sang: "Together we stand, divided we fall. Let's build a bridge,
tear down the walls."
In his speech, Kilpatrick said: "I stand before you as a son of the city of
Detroit and all that represents. This position is personal to me. It's much
more than just politics. I want you to understand that."
His election cemented the Kilpatricks' status as the first family of Detroit
politics. But the mayor's long downfall has coincided with, and contributed
to, the clan's calamitous decline.
His mother, a Detroit Democrat, failed to surpass 40% of the vote in winning
the August primary against two challengers, despite having a $500,000 edge
in campaign funds and 12 years of congressional seniority. And Bernard
Kilpatrick, now a private consultant, is entangled in news reports of
federal investigations into his inner circle.
A downtown revival is part of his success
The mayor's most visible successes revolved around the revival of Detroit
begun by his predecessors.
He hired competent development aides, gained a reputation as an agile deal
closer and presided over the continued revival of the central business
district, Midtown and the riverfront. Kilpatrick -- and Detroit -- shined
during the 2005 Major League All-Star Game and the 2006 Super Bowl.
New housing, from expensive condos, to lofts, to low-income bungalows,
sprouted across the city. Last November, Kilpatrick announced that Quicken
Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert had agreed to move his firm's headquarters and
4,000 employees downtown in coming years.
"Mayor Kilpatrick simply gets it," Gilbert said at the time. "Unlike a
typical politician, he is about the what, not the who. He is a man committed
to reviving the city."
The mayor also quarterbacked the $185-million deal to renovate the 34-story
Book Cadillac Hotel after it had sat vacant and rotting for 20 years.
"The mayor was willing to go to the wall with the various people he needed
to," John Ferchill, the Cleveland-based developer heading the project, said
Kilpatrick also ended up finally cutting deals to make the three permanent
casino-hotels a reality.
To keep Detroit from bankruptcy, he reduced the number of city employees.
Salary costs, the mayor said, dropped by $100 million between his first year
in office and 2008. Yet, every one of Kilpatrick's annual budgets ended in
"The mayor, incrementally, is trying to change the face of city government,"
said Conrad Mallett Jr., a Kilpatrick ally and former chief justice of the
Michigan Supreme Court. "He's gently pushing toward structural reform that
in the long run will pay off."
But city's longtime decline continues under his watch
Despite Kilpatrick's efforts, Detroit lost residents and businesses during
his tenure, and wide swaths of the city outside of downtown continued to
decline, just as they had under mayors going back at least to Albert Cobo in
As tax revenues have waned over the past several decades, Detroit's services
have continued to decline.
During his tenure, Kilpatrick discovered how complicated running a shrinking
city can be: The Police Department, for instance, went from 4,200 to 3,000
officers, and the mayor consolidated 12 precincts into six districts. And
residents complained the wait for a cop became even longer.
The Fire Department and EMS experienced grave problems with staffing and
equipment, and a cutback in bulk-trash pickups led to an increase in illegal
dumping on city streets. Keeping streetlights working proved to be as
difficult under Kilpatrick as it was under Mayors Archer and Coleman Young.
In addition to facing challenges posed by the flight of people and money,
Kilpatrick made policy mistakes of his own.
He surrounded himself with friends and family, many in key positions. Not
all of them proved to be smart appointments.
In 2004, he conceded that he had spoken hastily when he boasted early in his
first term that he would knock down 5,000 abandoned buildings. Eight months
later, it was revealed that his administration actually had set a 20-year
low for razing dilapidated structures.
Also in 2004, Kilpatrick challenged Detroiters to "dare mighty things" as he
announced he would buy the abandoned Michigan Central Depot and transform it
into a new police headquarters. Four years later, the station remains one of
the city's most visible eyesores and the police continue to work out of the
outdated and crumbling 1300 Beaubien building.
Kilpatrick came up with various big plans to enlarge Cobo Center, in part to
keep the North American International Auto Show. But those proposals all
have become bogged down in regional wrangling and suspicion.
One of his boldest moves was the hiring of a police chief, Jerry Oliver, in
February 2002, an outsider whom Kilpatrick charged with reforming the
department. That plan faltered when Oliver antagonized the force with his
blunt manner, zeal for change and public criticism of officers. Oliver
resigned after being caught with an unlicensed gun at Metro Airport -- he
claimed he didn't know the firearm was in his luggage at the time. Cops
celebrated Oliver's departure in the fall of 2003 by tearing his picture off
The Police Department, after years of federally mandated oversight, has
struggled to make reforms.
'At times I have been an imperfect servant'
On top of facing challenges posed by Detroit's long-term decline, Kilpatrick
harmed his own standing through a series of actions that raised questions
about his character, judgment and ability.
During his first mayoral campaign, he refused to disclose donors or
expenditures involving his well-financed Civic Fund, ostensibly a source for
voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts, but one that evidence
suggested Kilpatrick used as a slush fund, unfettered by campaign finance
His stonewalling was an early hint that he would not be as transparent as he
liked to pretend. Most big-city mayors publish detailed daily schedules and
make themselves available for frequent news conferences. By the end of his
first term, Kilpatrick's comings and goings had become top secret.
In a 2005 mini-scandal that the news media covered closely, the mayor
clumsily denied, then admitted, that city money was used to lease a Lincoln
Navigator for his wife. He spent $210,000 on a city-issued credit card
during his first 33 months in office, including for spa massages, Moët &
Chandon champagne and lavish meals. Scandals engulfed some appointees. He
had to deal with charges of nepotism and cronyism for deals with people like
his friend Bobby Ferguson, a contractor who served time in jail for
pistol-whipping one of his employees.
In April 2005, Time magazine named Kilpatrick one of the nation's worst
During his State of the City address that year, he said: "As mayor of
Detroit, I realize at times I have been an imperfect servant."
Voters were paying attention: In the August 2005 primary, Kilpatrick
finished behind Freman Hendrix, becoming the first Detroit mayor since
Edward Jeffries in 1947 to place second in a primary.
And Kilpatrick's character became an issue in the general election.
"The folks who have been partying at taxpayers' expense for the last four
years are not going to give up the credit cards without a fight," Hendrix
To underscore his family values, Kilpatrick ran billboard ads that featured
a photo of him, his wife and three boys. Carlita Kilpatrick, the mayor's
wife, spoke in a television ad of her husband's devotion to job and family.
Kilpatrick fought back in the general election campaign, telling voters he
had learned from his mistakes.
Drawing upon metro Detroit's antagonistic racial history, he assured city
residents he would protect them against rapacious suburbanites. But, lagging
in opinion polls late in the campaign, he accepted $230,000 -- mostly from
suburban businessmen -- that enabled him to finance a last-minute ad
campaign. Compuware Corp. founder Peter Karmanos, an ardent Kilpatrick
defender, donated $100,000.
Fall begins with party that maybe never was
In retrospect, it is possible to see how the mayor's political unraveling
began early in his first term. And the strangest aspect of the entire drama
is that the event that touched off Kilpatrick's eventual downfall might not
In the fall of 2002, just nine months after Kilpatrick took office, rumors
began circulating that Kilpatrick had hosted a wild party at the Manoogian
Mansion, and that his wife had arrived unexpectedly and assaulted a
stripper. Initially, no media outlet reported the rumors. And no law
enforcement agency has confirmed them since.
But they persisted and helped construct a public perception of Kilpatrick as
Asked in February 2003 about whisperings of "orgies" at the Manoogian
Mansion, the mayor told Hour magazine: "I think the reason that it comes out
is that we are sexy. I think this is a sexy administration because of the
As it turned out, Kilpatrick was carrying on an affair with his longtime
friend Christine Beatty, whom he had appointed chief of staff.
In May 2003, Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown filed a whistle-blower lawsuit
charging that the mayor had removed him from his post as head of internal
affairs because he was heading an investigation into allegations of the
party and the mayor's security team that might have uncovered Kilpatrick's
involvement with Beatty.
Kilpatrick was quick to deny Brown's claims. He stood on the Manoogian
Mansion steps and spoke passionately about his devotion to family and God.
The night before, though, the mayor and Beatty had engaged in a tryst in a
Washington hotel, according to the text messages the Free Press revealed in
Scandal mushrooms into one trauma after another
Brown's lawsuit triggered the chain of events that culminated, slightly more
than five years later, in the mayor's resignation.
The text messages showed Kilpatrick and Beatty lied about their sexual
relationship when they testified at the whistle-blower trial of Brown and
officer Harold Nelthrope last summer. The settlement of that lawsuit and one
filed by another cop, plus the city's legal fees, have cost the impoverished
city more than $9 million. The Free Press showed that Kilpatrick and Beatty
lied under oath, concocted secret documents and misled the City Council
about the reasons for the huge settlement.
After the jury verdict awarded Brown and Nelthrope a total of $6.5 million,
months before the text message revelations, Kilpatrick told listeners of
WJLB-FM (97.9) that he didn't get a fair trial. He did not offer specifics.
Kilpatrick then said it was "phenomenal to me" how the significance of
accomplishments such as his law degree and legislative career seemed to
evaporate in the public's mind after he became Detroit's youngest elected
"All of a sudden, you just get corrupt, ignorant, stupid, lazy and
promiscuous," he said. "And I just think that this is a reality check -- not
just on Kwame Kilpatrick because, you know, I'm God's guy; I'm going to be
all right -- I think this is for all black men right now in the city of
After the text messages became public, Kilpatrick spent eight months on the
defensive, parrying humiliating insights into his extramarital love life
with Beatty provided by the text messages, the increasing calls for his
resignation, the criminal charges and the ignominy of becoming a
laughingstock locally in the media, nationally on late-night TV and globally
on the Internet.
In late January, with the city in an uproar days after the text message
scandal broke, Kilpatrick appeared in an awkward tableau on local TV with
his stone-faced wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, during which the mayor reverted to
his old habit of issuing a mea culpa.
Speaking at length about the scandal for the first time publicly, Kilpatrick
held hands with his wife and apologized repeatedly to her, to residents,
supporters, opponents and his three sons for what he called "the
embarrassment and disappointment" of the previous days.
"I want to start tonight by saying to the citizens of this great city: I'm
sorry," Kilpatrick said, though in a nod to the legal peril he faced, the
mayor never actually said what he was apologizing for. He added: "I would
never quit on you. Ever."
Probably the most electric moment in the speech came when the camera turned
to Carlita Kilpatrick, and she talked about what it was like to have
intimate issues regarding her husband laid bare to the world.
"Like all marriages, ours is not perfect," she said. "Like all people, we
are not perfect. But through our commitment to God and each other, my
husband and I will get through this. Yes, I am angry, I am hurt and I am
disappointed. But there is no question that I love my husband."
A few weeks later, Kilpatrick attempted to cast himself as the victim of
"In the past 30 days, I've been called a nigger more than any time in my
entire life," Kilpatrick said at the end of his State of the City speech in
March, his voice rising and his finger wagging at the suddenly electrified
Orchestra Hall audience of appointees and supporters, which stood and
His words backfired, though, leading to widespread criticism and more calls
for his resignation.
Later in March, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy scolded Kilpatrick and
Beatty and charged them with multiple counts of perjury, conspiracy to
obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and misconduct.
In August, Kilpatrick's situation grew even more complex when Michigan
Attorney General Mike Cox charged him with two counts of assault for a
run-in on the porch of his sister's house with a sheriff's detective and his
partner, who were attempting to serve a subpoena on the mayor's friend, city
Kilpatrick's existence quickly devolved into a series of court appearances,
which were about the only times he appeared in public during this period.
Then he got in trouble with 36th District Judge Ronald Giles for having
traveled in July to Windsor, an out-of-state and international trip that
violated the terms of his bond.
On Aug. 7, while making a rambling, emotional plea during a bond hearing,
Kilpatrick said: "I apologize immensely. ... I am asking your forgiveness.
... I apologize to the citizens as well, but mostly to you."
The judge sent him to jail for the night, anyway.
In the end, the mayor's serial acts of contrition could not save the job he
cherished, the job in many ways he seemed born to hold.
He's done for now, but epitaph is incomplete
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American life.
Kilpatrick noted that himself in his valedictory late Thursday. But that
does not always hold true, as Denny McLain -- after his first prison term --
and A. Alfred Taubman have proved locally in the past few years. Memory is
short, and Kilpatrick's gifts are huge. It is not a stretch to imagine him
stepping into his mother's seat in Congress some day, or making millions in
the private sector.
Mallett, his friend and supporter, in the aftermath of the text message
scandal -- but months before the resignation -- described Kilpatrick as a
man with a unique vision, deep intellect, perseverance and tremendous
Why, he was asked, did the mayor always seem to be in trouble?
Mallett paused and said: "I reconcile it this way. Experience is a
wonderful, unyielding and demanding teacher. Some of the missteps that
occurred in the first term were directly related to having not managed a
situation as complex as this and not appreciating how important the process
is, particularly for the leader.
"Clearly, those lessons have been learned. I'll put a period on that."
Contact BILL McGRAW at bmcgraw@...
raw@...> . Staff writer John Gallagher contributed to this report.
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