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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 bankruptcy.


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 expected soon.


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.


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


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