Kwame Kilpatrick's Woes Tinge Mother's Campaign

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Rep. Kilpatrick and her son, Kwame

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-MI) and her son, Kwame, at a 2002 conference in Washington on raising successful black young men. J.Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

itoggle caption J.Scott Applewhite/AP

There's an anti-incumbent mood among many voters nationwide, and long-time Detroit Democratic Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is struggling to retain her seat in Congress. But her biggest obstacle is not her legislative record — it's her name.

That's because in Detroit, for the past few years, the name Kilpatrick has been repeatedly connected to courtrooms and scandal. The seven-term congresswoman's son, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is serving prison time and facing a federal indictment. Even in May, when Carolyn Kilpatrick launched her bid for re-election at a Detroit union hall, the announcement came only two months after she'd testified before a federal grand jury on a topic she would not discuss publicly.

Her weariness from the continuing stream of charges involving her family name was apparent at the opening of her campaign.

"You never know what God has in store for you. And when I want to quit they say, 'No, you can't quit. Keep on going.' Lot of my best friends are retired and they still tell me, 'No, we need you there.' And I'm here to fight one more time," she says.

Yet in the media scrum following her announcement and at almost every news event since then, the first questions center less on her work than on allegations her son faces.

The flamboyant Kwame Kilpatrick was forced from the mayor's office in 2008 after perjuring himself about an affair with his chief of staff. He was sent to prison in May for violating probation and while incarcerated was indicted by a federal grand jury on 19 counts of fraud and tax evasion.

Carolyn Kilpatrick has never been implicated in any of the charges against her son. But the allegations typically frame debate here.

Stumping for votes over lunch at a Detroit senior center recently, one of Kilpatrick's opponents — Hansen Clarke — says Detroit needs jobs, and they won't appear amid the scent of scandal.

"Because the image of the region is tainted by Detroit's reputation of being represented by arrogant, corrupt, self-serving politicians. Businesses don't want to locate here because they can't trust the city because of the politics," Clarke says. "By electing me, I can change the image so that we have a fresher one that'll attract jobs and investment here."

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick announces her campaign for an eighth House term. i i

Kilpatrick announces her bid for an eighth House term in May. She shrugged off suggestions that her son, disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, will be a drag on her re-election efforts. Carlos Osorio/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Osorio/AP
Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick announces her campaign for an eighth House term.

Kilpatrick announces her bid for an eighth House term in May. She shrugged off suggestions that her son, disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, will be a drag on her re-election efforts.

Carlos Osorio/AP

But the seniors in the lunchroom have decidedly mixed feelings.

Detroiter Ikie Frasier notes that Kilpatrick is the only member of the Michigan delegation on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and says the congresswoman has guided federal dollars to the cash-strapped city. And yet, Frasier says, it all seems for naught.

"Doesn't make any difference anymore. She's been doomed by her son's actions. Because people might think she's inclined to do what he did. And I really don't think she is," Frasier says.

The former mayor's legal troubles are a legitimate issue for senior Ella Dunmore. Mixing metaphors, she says birds may leave the nest, but bad apples don't fall far from the tree.

"So when they step out into the world, they're representing what you have taught them. OK? They're a manifest of your production — your DNA. And like I say, I don't see a lot of positive. I really don't," Dunmore says.

Kilpatrick barely retained her seat in the Democratic primary two years ago.

This time, her path to re-election is blocked not just by her opponents, but by fresh media images of her son in court, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and facing new federal charges. Michigan voters head to polls for the primary election on Aug. 3.

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