Detroit Mayor's Career Swamped by Scandal
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has to be watching the fate of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with particular interest. Like Spitzer, he is dealing with a scandal stemming from sexual misconduct that could end a political career that began with great promise. But unlike Spitzer, Kilpatrick has vowed to stick it out. In 2002, Kilpatrick became the youngest mayor in the city's history. Six years later, he could be facing criminal charges. Celeste Headlee reports.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Just how bad is it for the mayor of Detroit? This is an excerpt from his State of the City address this week.
Mayor KWAME KILPATRICK (Democrat, Detroit): And I don't care if they cut the TV off. We've never been in a situation like this before, where you can say anything, do anything, have no facts, no research, no nothing, and you can launch a hate-driven, bigoted assault on a family.
(Soundbite of cheers)
HEADLEE: This is not the charming, elegant politicians that voters first elected as mayor in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick led the Democratic Caucus in the Michigan State House of Representatives, the first African-American to hold a position of leadership in the House. Curt Guyette, news editor for the Metro Times, says the six foot four Kilpatrick was able to capture passionate support among voters.
Mr. CURT GUYETTE (Metro Times): If you've ever seen him in a room with a crowd of people, he is charismatic, he really knows how to move people. And he is a wheeler and dealer, which is a good thing.
HEADLEE: Longtime community organizer Victoria Kovari says Kilpatrick proclaimed himself the hip-hop mayor and played the role to the hilt.
Ms. VICTORIA KOVARI (Community organizer): He'd get out of this big, shiny, black SUV with what looked like a bunch of football players, you know, all bejeweled and decked out in fedora and almost like - like the king was coming.
HEADLEE: The first real inkling of trouble came when rumors seeped out about a wild party at the mayor's mansion in the fall of 2002. Allegedly the mayor's wife showed up at the party and assaulted one of the strippers. And Guyette says more revolutions came out about Kilpatrick's behavior.
Mr. GUYETTE: The mayor rendezvousing with women in the back of a barber shop. A woman coming down wearing a mink coat and the wind blowing it open and there'd be nothing underneath it. But what the real issue here is that the mayor shut down an investigation.
HEADLEE: One Detroit police officer asked his internal affairs department to investigate the mayor, but Kilpatrick fired both him and the head of internal affairs.
Unidentified Man: You can't do that. You cannot interfere with a police investigation in order to protect yourself.
HEADLEE: The officers filed a lawsuit claiming they were retaliated against, but before it came to trial, Kilpatrick was smeared across the headlines again. This time there were reports that he'd spent more than $200,000 on his taxpayer-funded credit card for massages, gourmet meals and champagne.
Kilpatrick finally made national headlines when text messages between him and his former chief of staff proved he'd lied under oath about their extramarital affair. So the mayor could face criminal charges. Kilpatrick's office didn't return NPR's phone calls.
During the mayor's angry tirade at the State of the City, he said the media has blown the whole thing out of proportion.
Mayor KILPATRICK: In the past 30 days, I've been called a nigger more than any time in my entire life. I've heard these words before, but I've never heard people say them about my wife and children.
HEADLEE: Kilpatrick's outburst and his use of a racial epithet has renewed calls for his resignation. On Mildred Gaddis's show, "Inside Detroit," callers are almost unanimous in demanding that he step down.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Caller): The citizens are being abused here. We are suffering. The mayor did not talk about water shut-off. The mayor did not talk about tax foreclosures. I am disgusted with this man.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Caller): Well, he's going to hide behind his family's skirt tails and use excuses and play the family card to get sympathy is just about as low as you go.
HEADLEE: Gaddis says she's not surprised by what's happened.
Ms. MILDRED GADDIS (Host, "Inside Detroit"): Sometimes our talents can take us places our character can't keep us, and that's what has happened to Kwame Kilpatrick.
HEADLEE: The county prosecutor says she'll decide whether or not to indict the mayor within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, University of Michigan Professor Vincent Hutching says the mayor's behavior can't help race relations in a city where those connections are already strained.
Professor VINCENT HUTCHINGS (University of Michigan): Sadly, Kilpatrick's behavior plays into a lot of stereotypes, a lot of racial stereotypes, about African-Americans, about Detroiters, with respect to corruption, promiscuity, irresponsibility.
HEADLEE: And Peter Lettsman(ph) of Grand Valley State University, a native Detroiter, says at some point Detroit city government will have to roll up its sleeves and clean house.
Mr. PETER LETTSMAN (Grand Valley State University): Detroit and Michigan has to undertake that challenge four years, and that's the only way we're going to come back. There is no magic formula. There's no fairy dust that we can sprinkle on the city of Detroit.
HEADLEE: Kilpatrick has vowed he won't resign. He may have to, though, if he ends up facing criminal charges. In the meantime, the city council has ordered the mayor to appear and try to explain himself.
For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.