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March 31, 2008

Mayoral Mug Shot: The New Face of Detroit


For Detroit, news last week that its mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, had been indicted on numerous charges – including the felonies of perjury and obstruction of justice – were the kind of kick to the chest that the city could have done without. 

Kilpatrick came to office as the face of youth and energy, a former legislator called the “hip-hop mayor.” It was hoped that he would reinvigorate the city, and restore confidence in her.

Housing, as it did everywhere else, boomed. The city sought out new business and new opportunities. Citizen confidence was restored, and an improbable sense of civic pride was on display during a storybook Super Bowl XL when native son Jerome Bettis returned home with the Pittsburgh Steelers and retired with a championship ring. 

While that was happening, cracks appeared and deepened. Rumors of wild parties and assaults on strippers in the mayoral mansion spread, and a deputy police chief accused the mayor of firing him for investigating abuse of overtime in a lawsuit. Called to testify in the lawsuit, the mayor and his chief of staff not only denied colluding to fire those involved, but also rumors of an illicit affair between the two.

But it’s no longer good enough merely to shred documents to cover one’s tracks. Today, computer experts can knit together pixels once thought destroyed. And text messages sent between the mayor and his chief of staff suggested that the two had lied on the stand.  

The messages were unearthed by the state’s largest newspaper. And if the mayor falls, it will be because he violated the first rule of public scandal – it’s not the crime that kills you, it’s the cover-up. 

In those messages, the mayor and his aide colluded to fire whistle-blowing police officers. But it was the lurid, sexually charged messages of past encounters and plans for future ones that watered the roots and, combined with the sunlight of investigative journalism, let this scandal grow outside its Detroit-sized pot. 

Lies about sex and corruption of power . . . how could that not go on the front page? 

The mayor continues to deny wrongdoing, and his lawyer plans to argue selective prosecution – that if the mayor lied under oath, it was during a civil trial and no one gets tried for lying under oath at civil trials. 

If the rumor mill is true, and it has had an unfortunate habit of accuracy in this case, the mayor’s troubles aren’t close to being halfway finished. The text messages, which cover only a portion of Kilpatrick’s tenure, are said to contain evidence of other wrongdoing, and could signal political death by 1,000 cuts – the slow bleed of a beast thrashing about in the public spotlight claiming it did no wrong. 

Kilpatrick’s scandal could spell trouble in deeper and more significant ways for the Motor City. It could also mean political upheaval. The mayor is the son of a member of Congress, and the nephew of a member of the state House. Two people – including one of the whistle-blowing cops and a former state lawmaker – have indicated that they plan to challenge the mayor’s mother in Michigan’s August primary, and the next mayoral election could be a bloodbath, with the prize being political control of the nation’s 11th-largest city, which itself is in economic turmoil. 

This was spurred on by last week’s criminal charges, which include multiple felonies against Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff. They were accompanied by calls from virtually every corner of the state, and from a considerable number of Detroit’s citizens, for Kilpatrick to step down for the good of the city and state. 

The nation this past weekend looked at Detroit through the prism of high-profile sports. But what they saw outside March Madness was a city whose face is very much different than the one they saw in 2005. Gone will be the face of hope, and in its place will be the police mug shot of a mayor fighting for political survival.

© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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