Race Issues Stoke Detroit Mayoral Primary

All the candidates for mayor are black, but race plays a role anyway. As Quinn Klinefelter of NPR station WDET notes, contenders in Motown's mayoral primary are accusing one another of being too closely aligned with white interests.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Tomorrow, Detroiters will vote in a city primary to narrow a field of mayoral candidates from a dozen down to two. Those left standing advance to the general election in November. All the major candidates are African-American. That fact hasn't kept race out of the rhetoric. From member station WDET, Quinn Klinefelter reports.

QUINN KLINEFELTER reporting:

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick kicked off his re-election bid last May amid a flurry of negative news stories. Detroit was nearing financial ruin while Kilpatrick used thousands of taxpayers' dollars for extravagant trips, dining and a leased Lincoln Navigator for his family. Kilpatrick's played hard to get with the media. He has good reason to, the mayor's father, Bernard Kilpatrick, told the crowd at an open air campaign rally. The father dismissed the controversies as attacks by white-owned media that don't like a young black mayor with a hip-hop image.

Mr. BERNARD KILPATRICK (Kwame Kilpatrick's Father): They go back to that one lie. He's a partyer! He wears an earring! If I was a young black man in this city right here, I'd be real afraid long about now.

Crowd: (In unison) Yeah!

Mr. KILPATRICK: If they can do it to him, I'm telling you, they can do it to any of us. We'd better wake up, Detroit!

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KILPATRICK: We'd better wake up.

KLINEFELTER: It's a familiar charge in 85 percent African-American Detroit and its almost all-white suburbs, the most segregated area in the nation. Race often factors into news coverage. Some small papers, like the weekly Michigan Citizen, specialize in issues affecting blacks. Publisher Catherine Kelly says local officials' attempts at cooperation, like creating a regional bus system to replace the separate city and suburban lines, typically end in frustration.

Ms. CATHERINE KELLY (Michigan Citizen): Racial politics permeate the area. Suburbanites didn't want a busload of Detroiters being let out on their doorsteps.

KLINEFELTER: Stories like that give all the candidates plenty to talk about. Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus says Mayor Kilpatrick trails heading into tomorrow's primary, but he says the mayor's gained ground since he's begun re-emphasizing his upbringing in a Detroit neighborhood.

Mr. ED SARPOLUS (Michigan Pollster): In an all-urban election, the incumbent mayor always runs against the suburbs or the white-owned newspapers, and part of the reason why the mayor has improved in his numbers, because he's played that race card of saying, `Lookit, they're attacking me.'

KLINEFELTER: Some Detroit-based media and activists frequently attacked Kilpatrick's predecessor, Dennis Archer, for ignoring neighborhood needs in favor of big developments downtown; in effect, selling out the city's future to white and suburban power brokers.

Unidentified Man: All smoky...

KLINEFELTER: In a library at Wayne State University, Archer's button-down former deputy mayor, Freman Hendrix, meets with students.

Unidentified Student: Bring it back to Motown, we don't even remember what Motown was, so how do you, I mean, explain it in a little bit more depth?

Mr. FREMAN HENDRIX (Mayoral Candidate): Yeah. That's a...

KLINEFELTER: Hendrix is leading the 12 candidate primary field. He bristles at the notion that he, like Archer, could be tagged as the white suburbanites candidate. He says Kilpatrick's major campaign contributions come from contractors outside of Detroit.

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, we're talking about selling out right now and like who's the white man's candidate, who's the republic man's candidate and all of that? And, you know, I think it's as distasteful as that is, that's exactly who Mr. Kilpatrick has showed himself to be, that he's been happy to sit down and cut a deal with anybody. He doesn't care what their political philosophy is, whether they're for Detroit or against Detroit. If you can help Kwame, then let's talk.

KLINEFELTER: At a downtown Detroit bus stop, undecided voter Catherine Kelly says Hendrix's argument doesn't win her over. She thinks all Detroit politicians make deals under the table, and the only whites she thinks they truly fear are federal authorities.

Ms. KELLY: If they stopped doing all this illegal stuff, then white people wouldn't have to come in--as they call them, the white people. It's not white or black. It's whether you're doing wrong or not. If you're doing wrong, then they have to come in and correct you.

KLINEFELTER: In a city facing a $300 million budget deficit, with an unemployment rate twice the national average, whoever sits in the mayor's chair faces a defining year ahead. Detroit teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, while preparing to host the Super Bowl in a very divided region. Race will likely factor into almost every political decision. After all, in Detroit, the issue never really goes away. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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