Racial Politics

Keith Naughton, Newsweek, March 13, 2008

{snip} At the end of an otherwise routine state-of-the-city speech Tuesday night, [Detroit’s embattled mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick] went off on a racially explosive tirade against his critics and the media.

“In the past 30 days I’ve been called a n——- more than any time in my entire life,” he told a cheering, invitation-only crowd of 1,500 at Detroit’s gilded Orchestra Hall. “In the past three days I’ve received more death threats than I have in my entire administration. I’ve heard these words, but I’ve never heard people say them about my wife and children. I have to say this, because it’s very personal to me.” {snip}

An African-American man might be making a serious run at the White House, but here in Motown the old-school politics of race still define this struggling city. Census data show this is the most racially divided urban center in America, with 81 percent of the city black and a roughly equal percentage of the surrounding suburbs white. Politicians on both sides of Detroit’s cultural fault line—the 8 Mile Road made famous by Eminem—have stoked racial fears for decades in order to get elected and stay in power. {snip}

. . . Now Kilpatrick, 37, is fighting for his political life as he faces the prospect of perjury charges—a felony punishable by 15-years in jail—for what many people now believe was lying under oath about an illicit affair with his then-chief of staff, Christine Beatty. Last summer, while testifying in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by two Detroit cops, Kilpatrick and Beatty vehemently denied they were lovers and that they had fired the cops for investigating the mayor’s security detail, which could have revealed their clandestine relationship. Then the Detroit Free Press in January unearthed text messages that contradicted their sworn testimony. (Example: “I need you soooo bad,” Kilpatrick texted Beatty on his city-issued pager in 2002. “I want to wake up in the morning and you are there.”) Since then, court documents have become public—despite Kilpatrick’s efforts to keep them sealed—that disclose a secret deal the mayor cut last fall to settle the whistleblower suit in exchange for destroying the incriminating text messages, which mysteriously never came out at trial. The settlement cost Detroit taxpayers $9 million.

Kilpatrick’s strategy for survival initially followed a familiar narrative arc. {snip} Kilpatrick also embraced the Almighty, whom he said was “whipping” him for his transgression but had “ordained” him to be the mayor of Detroit. “I believe I’m on an assignment from God,” he told local radio station WMXD.

Then his tone turned tough. First there was the unsuccessful court battle over the lawsuit settlement, which went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. More recently Kilpatrick hired an A-list legal and PR team known for defending high-profile political figures. He lawyered up with Chicago defense attorney Daniel Webb, who represented former Illinois governor George Ryan in the racketeering trial he lost last year. (Kilpatrick has already indicated a willingness to fight any charges, with Detroit’s general counsel, Sharon McPhail, arguing there isn’t a strong enough case to prove perjury.) Kilpatrick also brought in Washington PR pro Judy Smith, who represented Monica Lewinsky and provided counsel to Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, when he famously accused his critics of engaging in a “high-tech lynching.”

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Will it work? One former Kilpatrick adviser sure doesn’t think so. “The mayor engaged in the most repulsive form of race baiting I’ve seen in 30 years of political consulting,” said veteran Detroit political operative Sam Riddle, who worked on Kilpatrick’s 2005 re-election. “That was no ad-lib. That was a calculated move to pimp the emotions of Detroit so he can build a political base predicted on the politics of race. But it won’t work. Detroit is fed up with this guy. They know he used their money to cover up the text messages, and they know he lied on the stand. He ought to man up like Eliot Spitzer and resign.” Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, Wednesday called on Kilpatrick to resign after condemning his speech as “race baiting on par with David Duke and George Wallace.”

{snip}

The businessmen weren’t the only ones raising concerns. African-American commentators in Detroit’s local media scorned Kilpatrick’s racial remarks. “The shameful, divisive words he used to draw false lines between those who want him to own up and those he expects to give him a pass will serve only to prolong the agony in this community,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson. “His words represent the height of irresponsibility, and seeped into gross negligence.”

But for Kilpatrick, media attacks like that will only serve to strengthen his case with his base. Decades of divisive politics in Detroit have conditioned voters on both sides of 8 Mile to believe that each is out to get the other. That’s why white suburbanites boast about how many years it has been since they’ve visited the city. And it’s why Kilpatrick finds an accepting audience for his accusations of bigotry. “Using the N word was part of the necessary pandering he had to make to his voters,” said Detroit political consultant Eric Foster. “He’s telling his base, ‘The white media and the white folks are attacking your black mayor, and I need you to rally around me’.”

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