MICHELE NORRIS, host:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is a well-established incumbent in a solidly Democratic district that includes Detroit. She should coast to re-election in November. She should, but next Tuesday, Kilpatrick faces an unusually tough primary challenge.
A complicating factor in the race is her son. He's the controversial mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, and he's awaiting trial on multiple felony counts. Detroit Public Radio's Noah Ovshinsky reports on this unique campaign dilemma.
NOAH OVSHINSKY: The first negative ad to appear on Detroit television during this campaign didn't discuss the issues or the congresswoman's record, as is customary.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Representative CAROLYN CHEEKS KILPATRICK (Democrat, Michigan): Don't let nobody talk about ya's boy!
OVSHINSKY: Instead, it showed a hyped-up Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in 2005 emphatically defending her son, the mayor of Detroit, on a screen that also portrayed his police mug shot.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Announcer: Sorry, Congresswoman, but we deserve much better than ya's boy.
OVSHINSKY: The ad, produced for one of her two challengers, set the tone for this contentious primary. Back in 2005, her son was under fire for his misuse of a city credit card. Now the mayor is under fire again. He's been charged with perjury, conspiracy and misconduct in office.
Eric Foster(ph), a Detroit-based political consultant, says the mayor's legal problems have profoundly changed the dynamics of this year's race for Michigan's 13th congressional district.
Mr. ERIC FOSTER (Political Consultant): Detroit is very polarized, where the pro-Kilpatrick versus anti-Kilpatrick dynamic has taken on a political identification similar to Democrat and Republican, and in a primary cycle the anti-Kilpatrick vote out-votes the pro-Kilpatrick vote probably by a three-to-two margin.
OVSHINSKY: Those numbers aren't lost on Congresswoman Kilpatrick or her advisors. At a political event earlier this month, she brought in Washington heavyweight Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, to bolster her campaign. During her speech, Pelosi emphasized Kilpatrick's experience, only vaguely referencing the mayor's situation.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): And what we're very proud of her is not only is she a great representative, not only is she a great leader, she's also a great mom, and she does what moms do. She does what moms do.
(Soundbite of applause)
OVSHINSKY: But she's also doing something she's rarely had to do during her six terms in Congress: publicly debate her opponents.
The three women running for the seat - Kilpatrick, former state lawmaker Mary Waters and State Senator Martha Scott - recently addressed a standing-room-only crowd inside a church gymnasium on Detroit's east side. The topics, drawn largely from the crowd, included gay marriage, the home foreclosure crisis, and high gas prices, but the debate often turned personal, focusing on Kilpatrick's relationship with her son. This is from Mary Water.
Ms. MARY WATERS (Candidate): When he ran for mayor, he touted, he said, I know a lady in Washington who sits on this huge budget. However, we should have 10 times more money because of that relationship.
OVSHINSKY: After the debate, the other candidate, State Senator Martha Scott, sought to minimize the family relationship but acknowledged it hasn't hurt her campaign.
State Senator MARTHA SCOTT (Democrat, Michigan): It's really about her. Now, he does put some icing on the cake, but it's really about her, and that's why I decided to run.
OVSHINSKY: Eighteen-year-old Amani Andrews(ph) says she, like many voters, is ready for a change. She says the mother-son relationship matters in this primary.
Ms. AMANI ANDREWS: She definitely does have a lot of work to do as far as just getting back a good name. I feel that the mayor has really damaged that name, and so it's going to be really hard for her coming up on election.
OVSHINSKY: But outside the church, Kilpatrick supporter Byron Frazier(ph) insisted the relationship didn't matter. Indeed, he says, the mayor is a grown man and can fend for himself. Byron says it's the congresswoman's experience and status in Washington that truly matters.
Ms. BYRON FRAZIER: She's well-polished. She knows her stuff. She's been in Congress for years. So the incumbent is always hard to beat, and of course she knows her stuff, and the other two didn't seem to know much at all.
OVSHINSKY: There is a sense that with two opponents splitting the opposition, Congresswoman Kilpatrick will likely win re-nomination in Tuesday's primary, but if the margin is unimpressive, it could lead to trouble in two years when she could face a more organized and better funded opposition. For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.
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