Can Kwame Kilpatrick Grow Up?

Steven Gray, Time Magazine, September 20, 2007

Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick was named one of America’s worst mayors by TIME in 2005. Have his fortunes changed since then? Not if you go by court decisions. Last week, a Michigan jury awarded $6.5 million to two former Detroit police officers who alleged they were retaliated against for investigating possible misconduct by Kilpatrick’s bodyguards. The award is the latest blow for Kilpatrick. . .


At a time when many of America’s few remaining big city black mayors are young, polished and corporate-minded, Kilpatrick seems to be a bit of a throwback. He became mayor in 2002 at age 31, the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Cultural icon Russell Simmons crowned him the nation’s first “hip-hop mayor” and Kilpatrick, now 37, did not try to avoid a life of excess. His first inauguration was marked with “club crawls” (he said they were intended to galvanize Detroit’s disaffected youth); he wore a diamond-studded earring and flashy suits; his wife got use of a Lincoln Navigator which was leased for $25,000 by the police department. The two Detroit cops then charged Kilpatrick’s bodyguards with abusing overtime and failing to report accidents involving city vehicles.


All this couldn’t come at a worse time. Much of Detroit remains an urban war zone, having seen its population more than halved from a 1950s peak of nearly 2 million. Unemployment stands at roughly 14%. About 47% of the city’s residents over age 16 are functionally illiterate.


In an interview with TIME, Kilpatrick blamed some of his “boneheaded” behavior—particularly during his first term—on his youth, and his initial inexperience managing a major city. His image, especially the earring, alienated many of Detroit’s black professionals, notably middle-aged women. “They didn’t think I had the life skills, or they thought I wasn’t like their sons—engineers or doctors,” he says.

The fact is, however, that Kilpatrick grew up in a powerful Michigan political family. His mother, now chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, spent years in Michigan’s legislature. His father was a county commissioner. A former college football captain who trained as a lawyer, Kwame Kilpatrick himself was a rising star in Michigan’s legislature before being elected mayor. So he was hardly a political neophyte when he displayed behavior many view as unseemly for a sitting mayor of a major American city. For many, Kilpatrick’s style and his attempts to cast himself as a racial martyr sent the message that, “This is our city now, and the thug life is okay,” says Mildred Gaddis, 53 and one of Detroit’s most popular black talk-radio personalities. “This hip-hop thing,” she observes, “it turned off a lot of people who initially supported him.” Gaddis says she was one of them.

So he stopped wearing the earring. Nevertheless, in 2005 he became the first incumbent Detroit mayor not to win a primary election. (He placed second in the Democratic primary, which allows the top two finishers to contest the general election.)


The Detroit Free-Press last month reported that only 36% of Detroit residents approve of Kilpatrick’s job performance.



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