A Comeback Kid for a Dead-End Town
By PAUL CLEMENS (NYT) 1700 words
Published: November 13, 2005
ON Tuesday, in perhaps the one election with no national implications -- two black Democrats faced off, and President Bush didn't drop by -- Kwame Kilpatrick was re-elected mayor of Detroit. No real surprise there, as no incumbent has lost in Detroit since 1961. Then again, Mayor Kilpatrick had been well behind in the polls; early that night one of the local television channels projected that the challenger, Freman Hendrix, who was ahead by 19 points in its exit polling, would be Detroit's new mayor. I went to bed, feeling informed, and woke up, like much of Detroit, feeling flummoxed.
There are at least three possible things being referred to when someone says ''Detroit.'' There is the city proper, about 900,000 residents and falling, which on Tuesday cast ballots in the mayor's race; there is the metropolitan area of about four million living in uncomfortable coexistence; and there is the American auto industry, for which Detroit is the newspaper shorthand, and which has had a rough go of it lately.
These three entities are by no means distinct; they are as conflictingly interconnected as a crime family beginning to crumble, and Mr. Kilpatrick -- ''America's first hip-hop mayor,'' a sobriquet he once seemed to relish and now wishes to shed -- finds himself in the position of Michael Corleone, sitting on that park bench at the end of ''Godfather II'': in control, after something of a scare, contemplating how to pick up the pieces.
On any warm day in Detroit, one will pass a number of young men in T-shirts bearing images of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando as the Don. Recently, shirts featuring the mug shots of actual Mafiosi have become popular, and staring out from an approaching Fruit of the Loom will be Capone or one of his cronies. This was the culture Mayor Kilpatrick came out of, and he embraced its ethos: taking office at 31, he wore pinstripe suits and a diamond earring and traveled with an entourage. Hip-hop trades in stereotypes, and he trotted them out so predictably that his detractors pegged him as a thug.
The scandals, when they arrived, were mostly standard issue, but ended up being perceived through a hip-hop lens: leasing a luxury S.U.V. for his wife on taxpayer money; watching as a member of his security detail roughed up an intrusive reporter; running up hefty tabs at taxpayer expense at select hotels and restaurants; and holding a wild party -- still unsubstantiated, intermittently investigated -- at the mayoral residence, the Manoogian Mansion. Little surprise he finished a disappointing second in the open mayoral primary in August, 10 points behind Mr. Hendrix.
Two days before Tuesday's runoff, however, he said that his primary showing had been ''a message to me.'' From that night on, he said, he'd exhibited to the voters of Detroit ''a tremendous amount of maturation and growth.'' The earring came out, as did the scope of his accomplishments. Rhymes and beats don't cut the grass, plow the snow or pave the streets, but the city has been doing these things better under Mr. Kilpatrick than at any time in recent memory.
Though he has taken a great deal of grief for the city's budget deficit -- the auditor general claims Detroit is facing receivership, while Mr. Kilpatrick says the situation is not nearly so dire -- his defense of how the city came to be in this situation is at least partly persuasive. ''We should be getting awards,'' Mr. Kilpatrick said of how his administration has handled a city budget overburdened, as in the auto industry, with too many workers, unsustainable union expectations and spiraling pension and health care costs. (Like the auto industry, Detroit is also losing market share: during the day, Detroit's dwindling population actually drops further, as city residents leave to work in the suburbs.) He may not deserve an award, but with the auto-parts maker Delphi bankrupt, the credit rating at G.M. and Ford junk, and Michigan having the country's highest rate of joblessness, he deserves to at least be graded on a curve.
The best shot landed against the mayor by Mr. Hendrix -- a former deputy mayor endorsed by the conservative Detroit News, the liberal Detroit Free Press and, unofficially, the Detroit suburbs -- came during a debate. After Mayor Kilpatrick mentioned Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor, Mr. Hendrix snapped back, ''Stop invoking the name of Mayor Young as though you have something in common with him.''
Mr. Hendrix is the mayor's senior by two decades, and his retort was the equivalent of Lloyd Bentsen's ''I knew Jack Kennedy you're no Jack Kennedy'' rebuke to Dan Quayle. Coleman Young is a mythic figure who will forever haunt the city's political landscape; he can play kingmaker from beyond the grave.
The best book on an American politician remains A. J. Liebling's ''Earl of Louisiana,'' his 1961 profile of Gov. Earl Long of Louisiana, and its first lines are justly famous: ''Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.'' The same can be said of Detroit political personalities. Coleman Young's appeal couldn't travel beyond the city's 8 Mile Road border, or even into the few remaining white areas of the city itself.
Among Detroit's whites, a voting bloc now approaching the nonexistent, Mr. Kilpatrick has proved as unpopular as Coleman Young, getting a negligible percent of their vote Tuesday. His campaign slogan called him ''Our Mayor,'' but whites didn't see themselves included in the plural possessive, nor did those white suburbanites looking for a détente between city and suburb. Yet despite such evidence suggesting that his charms are specific to black Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick's political personality could carry him beyond the city's boundaries, should he choose to try. He is such a talented politician -- so charismatic in person, so knowledgeable on policy, so lacking in discipline in precisely those areas where his detractors wish to see him stumble -- that he puts one in mind of a young Arkansas governor, also elected in his early 30's, who went on to become the first black president of the United States.
Bill Clinton took the stage with Mayor Kilpatrick at the Rosa Parks memorial in Detroit six days before the vote. If Mr. Kilpatrick, the lawyer son of Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, had little in common with the up-from-Alabama Young, what common ground did he share with ''Mother Parks,'' as he called her, a woman whose last public move had been a lawsuit against the hip-hop duo Outkast?
Yet his frequent encomiums of the civil rights icon helped soften his image and close the gap in the polls. ''Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy,'' Mr. Kilpatrick said, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his Parks eulogy. Only the worst white racist would deny the legacies of Mrs. Parks and Dr. King, but even the most progressive white voter might have difficulty accepting such a sentiment from a mayor seen as representing a very different movement in black America -- one that, to many, can make no such moral claim.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, an ad appeared in a black newspaper accusing four local journalists -- three of them white -- of ''lynching'' the mayor. (No one has yet taken responsibility for the lynching ad: call it the campaign's Swift Boat Veterans moment.) The racism charge, alternately a legitimate complaint and a too-convenient crutch, looked to bea political placebo: the believers bought it, the skeptics scoffed, and the polls moved about an inch.
But the election results held evidence that the ad had an impact. The mainstream news media in Detroit is perceived as white and suburban, and by and large it is. Even legitimate criticisms of Mr. Kilpatrick can thus be seen as attacks by outside interests against our mayor. Particularly among younger voters, who overwhelmingly supported the incumbent.
''Fundamentally, modern Detroit exists to build and sell motor cars,'' the historian Arthur Pond wrote in 1940, a quote Coleman Young used in his autobiography, ''and once it quits doing that it will lose its chief reason for existence.'' The most chilling comment of the campaign came from Mr. Kilpatrick last Sunday, when he said Detroit has switched from a ''manufacturing economy to a casino economy.'' Call it postmodern Detroit, one searching for a new reason -- and means -- to exist.
The same day Mr. Kilpatrick was elected, voters in suburban Livonia -- the whitest community of more than 100,000 residents in America -- voted to opt out of our regional bus authority, which is as close as metro Detroit comes to mass transit. (The Big Three have never been big fans of mass transit -- this Detroit continues to exist to build and sell motor cars.) ''There's going to be people who'll have to give up their jobs, because they can't afford a car,'' said one proponent of the bus network. ''I don't know what will happen to those people.'' It's pretty clear what will happen: instead of living in Detroit and working in the suburbs, they'll live in Detroit and not work anywhere.
Having run as a divider, not a uniter, Kwame Kilpatrick will now have to find a way to work with the suburbs -- to which, according to a recent poll, one-third of Detroiters would move tomorrow if they could -- on these matters and more. That's the bad news. The good news is that Mr. Kilpatrick has now shown he might be politician enough to do it.
Drawing (Drawing by Alexander Strube)