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July 28, 2008
Will Woeful Detroit
Welcome the Rest of the Nation to the Cellar?
Events in the nation’s
11th-biggest city took a turn for the absolutely surreal last week, with
accusations that its top elected official threw a profanity-laden,
racially-charged tirade at a sheriff’s deputy and a county prosecutor’s
investigator. On top of that, there were accusations that the mayor had
attempted to intervene physically.
The incident promptly
landed Kwame Kilpatrick, mayor of the city of Detroit, back in court.
Kilpatrick was indicted earlier this year on an array of felony charges.
At the beginning of the
incident was an affair, which now seems almost trivial compared to
things that have come to light. At the time, and when Kilpatrick was
arraigned, there was a push for Kilpatrick to resign his job. The
Detroit City Council, with an increasingly strained and hostile
relationship with the mayor’s office, asked Michigan’s governor,
Jennifer Granholm, to step in and use her executive powers to remove
Kilpatrick from office.
Then there was a pushback
that the mayor be allowed to serve until convicted of a crime. It’s both
familiar and sounds, on the face of it, entirely reasonable. In this
country, the guilty aren’t actually the guilty unless found so by a jury
of peers. After the guilty plea, the argument goes, then you talk about
whether to relieve someone of executive powers.
That sounds fine and
dandy, since no one wants to see someone punished for something they
didn’t ultimately do.
The flip side to this, of
course, is the shape of the city of Detroit. If the rest of the nation
finally slides into recession, it will find Detroit and the rest of the
state of Michigan there, holding open the door and saying, “Greetings,
welcome to the cellar.”
This has not been a good
decade for the nation’s major automakers. High gas prices are just the
cherry on top of a particularly rancid sundae on which they’ve been
choking for years. For a few bleak weeks this summer, there was
speculation gathering that perhaps General Motors might have to declare
Automakers’ woes have
been just one piece of bad news for Detroit and the rest of the state.
The collapse of the housing market hit southeastern Michigan
particularly hard, with Michigan competing for the lead in foreclosures.
When elected at the age
of 31, Kilpatrick was hailed as just the kind of person to tackle these
kinds of issues. The business community loved his energy, and he worked
to revitalize the city.
After scandal erupted, it has been the business community
that has helped keep him afloat. As things continue to bubble to the
surface, and Kilpatrick’s scuffle with a law enforcement officer last
week was just the latest, the city’s efforts to rebuild itself and
diversify its economy have been consumed by the mayor’s travails. To
make matters worse, the mayor’s archenemy, the Detroit City Council, has
come under investigation for corruption. It’s one piece of bad news
after another for Motown.
Meanwhile, the mayor has
assembled a high-powered team of attorneys, all of whom promise that the
prosecutor’s multiple-felony case is crumbling. Who knows? No trial is
What is known is that no
one actually expects the mayor to come through a trial with his
reputation unscathed. Even if cleared, he’ll still be tainted. The
question for the City of Detroit will be how to rebuild not just the
city’s economy, but the sense of faith they can lay in its institutions.
For the rest of us, it’s
a reminder that what happens in a court of law can settle legal matters,
but there are times when the most important verdicts are instead handed
down by the court of public opinion.
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