Kwame Kilpatrick exits, with Barack Obama holding the door

With the presidential race in Michigan too close for comfort, it can only help Obama that Detroit's racially divisive and felonious mayor has finally lost his job.

Published September 4, 2008 2:51PM (EDT)

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice on Thursday morning. Kilpatrick will forfeit his office and serve 120 days in jail, ending a scandal that began when the Detroit Free Press published raunchy text messages between Kilpatrick and his ex-chief of staff. Messages proving that, in spite of Kilpatrick's testimony during a civil lawsuit, the pair had, in fact, been knocking boots.

As much as Detroiters are relieved to be rid of their lubricious, dissembling mayor, Barack Obama has to be even more relieved.

Last year, before addressing the Detroit Economic Club, Obama praised Kilpatrick as "a great mayor." This year, he told the mayor to stay away from the Democratic National Convention. On Wednesday, as Kilpatrick apparently balked at accepting a plea deal, Obama issued a public statement asking him to resign. The longer Kilpatrick stayed in office, the more the Detroit-phobic white voters of Michigan were liable to ask, "If a black Democrat can't run the city, how can one run the country?"

In 2008, with the economy in recession -- in free fall in Michigan -- this bluish-purple state, which hasn't gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, should be Obama's for the taking. With Kilpatrick's misbehavior dominating the local news on every TV station in a metro area that holds nearly half Michigan's population, he's barely leading: A recent Detroit News poll has him beating McCain 43-41.

Ever since the 1967 riot sent hundreds of thousands of whites in a great migration across 8 Mile Road -- the city limit, and the symbolic border between black and white Detroit -- the city and its suburbs have coexisted as uncomfortably as Soweto and Johannesburg.

It was pollster Stanley Greenberg who discovered Detroit's white exiles resettled, but still seething, in Macomb County, and gave them the Linnaean name "Reagan Democrats." The original Reagan Democrat, circa 1980, was a blue-collar voter who abandoned his native party over antiwar protests, busing, affirmative action and welfare queens. Some Reagan Democrats were from an Appalachian background, their forebears having moved north for auto factory jobs. Many were ethnics, white Catholics whose ancestors had come to America long after slavery was abolished. Neither strain had much patience with white guilt, many were stung by Michigan's industrial implosion, as those factory jobs disappeared, and all were outraged by a court decision ordering cross-district busing to integrate their children's schools. (It was overturned by the Supreme Court.) They were also horrified at Detroit's transformation into the original New Jack City. Thanks to drug outfits like the Chambers Brothers and Young Boys Inc., the city had the highest murder rate in the nation.

During Greenberg's first trip to Macomb County, at the height of the Reagan years, he found that whites "expressed a profound distaste for black America, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics. Blacks constituted the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives."

And now, for the last eight months, the local news emanating every day from this black city to its white suburbs has featured the legal, sexual and administrative misadventures of a black mayor who doesn't just play the race card, he is the race card.

Kilpatrick's legal and political problems stemmed from his testimony in a lawsuit by former Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown. Brown claimed he was fired in 2003 for testifying in an investigation into a wild party with strippers at the mayoral mansion, in which Kilpatrick's wife allegedly physically attacked one of the strippers. During the trial, Kilpatrick swore he never had a romantic relationship with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty. But in January, the Detroit Free Press published these booty text-messages:

Kilpatrick: "And, did you miss me, sexually?"

Beatty: "Hell yeah! You couldn't tell. I want some more." Kilpatrick had already settled the suit for $8.4 million and cut a side deal with the ex-cop's lawyer to keep the texts secret, so he really had to feel burned by the press.

Last month, Kilpatrick spent a night in jail after violating his bond by crossing the Canadian border to Windsor, Ontario, on city business. The mayor has also been charged with assault for allegedly shoving a sheriff's deputy who tried to serve a warrant at his sister's house. For a time, he wore an electronic tether, confining him to metro Detroit.

Kilpatrick is an odious politician, but he's only a symptom of Detroit's problems -- a monster created by the racial estrangement between urban blacks and suburban whites. Kilpatrick kept himself in office by exploiting Detroit's tensions, cleverly maneuvering on a political landscape that was in place before he was born.

After the scandal broke, Kilpatrick used his State of the City address to drop the N-bomb. "In the past thirty days, I've been called a nigger more than any time in my entire life," he claimed. It didn't work. The City Council asked him to resign.

Kilpatrick refused to go, so the council asked Gov. Jennifer Granholm to step in. As governor, Granholm has the power to remove shady officials from their posts. As a white Democrat, Granholm was reluctant to yank the black mayor of a city whose voters provide her party's margin of victory. But she was even more reluctant to allow Kilpatrick's shenanigans to inflict more bruises on downtrodden Detroit -- and possibly scuttle Obama's campaign in Michigan. On Wednesday, she convened the removal hearing that finally forced Kilpatrick's hand.

Kilpatrick became mayor in January 2002 at age 31, winning his office the old-fashioned way -- through nepotism. The son of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick -- who nearly lost this year's primary because of her son's scandals -- he defeated elderly city councilman Gil Hill, a former police detective who gained fame for playing Eddie Murphy's boss in the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies.

By his reelection campaign in 2005, Kilpatrick already had his head on the chopping block. His 300-pound ex-footballer's frame, his chalk-striped suits and his diamond earrings had earned him the nickname "The Hip-Hop Mayor." Kilpatrick had alienated voters by leasing a $25,000 Lincoln Navigator on the city's dime and traveling with a Caesarian security detail. He allegedly used a city card to charge champagne and spa massages.

Whites are only one-sixth of the Detroit electorate. The election was a battle between the bourgeois blacks west of Woodward Avenue, who disdained Kilpatrick, and the poor blacks on the East Side, for whom he was a hero.

Kilpatrick escaped from the 2005 primary with 27 percent of the vote. But his opponent in the general election, an all-Democratic runoff, had a fatal handicap. Former Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix had come in first in the primary with 44 percent of the vote, almost enough to prevent the runoff. But Freman wasn't his first name. It was Helmut, a moniker given him by his mother, an Austrian Army bride named Rudolfine Ernegger. Kilpatrick knew how to play the Oreo card. His supporters took out an ad in the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit's black newspaper, asking voters to "Just say 'no' to the suburban raiders and their puppet Helmut Hendrix (a.k.a. Freman)." Kwame's father, Bernard "Killer" Kilpatrick, compared his son's critics to Nazis. On Election Day, the mayor skunked the pollsters with a 6-point win.

It was a racist campaign, but it also played on the pride of black Detroiters. They relish their control over City Hall and the regional water supply (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department serves all of southeastern Michigan), and are adamant that suburbanites have no right to reclaim what they abandoned.

"There's still a fear that the whites will come back and they'll take over the city, they'll take over the water department," a man from the West Side told me as I covered the campaign in 2005. "People say, 'We stayed. We suffered through the city for 40 years. The whites fled. Why should they come in and reap the benefits?'"

The whites are unlikely to return. If anything, they'd like to jackhammer 8 Mile and replace it with razor wire. Earlier this year, Greenberg went back to Macomb, where he found Obama "underperforming" among its tradition-minded Democrats. John Kerry lost the county by 1 point, but Obama was trailing McCain 46-39. Only 71 percent of Democrats were ready to vote for him, versus 85 percent of Democrats nationwide.

This time around, Greenberg found that voters still resented government aid to blacks. Presented with Robert F. Kennedy's statement that America has a "special burden" to help blacks, they responded, "Get over it" and "Didn't they get forty acres and a mule? That's more than I got." But they also distinguished Obama from black leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who were disdained as demanding troublemakers. This time, Macomb County voters were far more concerned about the economy than about blacks, although there was a hint that Kilpatrick could revive the racial rivalry.

"Welfare, crime, reverse discrimination, blacks and Detroit were never mentioned in the discussion of why the country and state are off track, except for some asides about Detroit's pathetic mayor," Greenberg wrote. Obama's soft support in Macomb was more a matter of hesitation than resistance. Voters wanted assurance that Obama won't put black interests above white interests, that he'll work to keep blue-collar jobs in America, and that his exotic name and background won't prevent him from fighting terrorism. Race played a role in some of those concerns. But the poll also demonstrated that white, blue-collar voters are the toughest sell in any election: Resolutely middle class, they're skeptical of both elites and the poor, and they don't worship at the altar of either party.

Macomb County has come to stand for white backlash against black Detroit, but it's unfair to single out one suburb. Northwest of the city is tony Oakland County, home to Big Three execs. For years, Oakland's county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, has campaigned to bring back the death penalty, even though Michigan abolished it in 1846.

Patterson has been outspoken about Kilpatrick's drag on the Democratic ticket.

"Every day Kwame is in trouble, every day he puts on that tether, every time they march him to jail is a day the Democrat Party loses favor with the voting public," he told the Detroit News.

Livonia, just west of Detroit, is America's whitest city with over 100,000 people. On the day Kilpatrick was reelected, Livonia voted to detach itself from the regional transit system.

I once put it to a woman from Livonia that Detroit is the entire state's responsibility. If Detroit fails, I said, Michigan fails. She seemed taken aback.

"I ... I don't know what to say to that," she responded.

Plenty of suburbanites believe the blacks ruined Detroit, and that Kilpatrick is only the latest avatar of their misrule.

"I wouldn't move back to Detroit even if you gave me a free house," I heard from a white riverboat captain who'd grown up on, then fled, the city's southeast side. "The garbage never gets picked up. Dennis Archer" -- Kilpatrick's predecessor, seen as a bridge builder between city and suburb -- "is the only decent mayor Detroit ever had."

The fact is, Detroit is hardly a city anymore. The whites have skedaddled to the north, west and south. They took the department stores, the basketball team, the middle-class jobs, the theaters and the concert halls, and prevented the blacks from building a train system to chase after them. Detroit can only become a city again by following the examples of Toronto and Indianapolis, and consolidating the old urban core with the suburbs. That's not likely to happen: The whites would complain about sharing tax dollars, the blacks about sharing power. Detroit and its suburbs will continue to revolve around each other like twinned planets, one black, one white, never touching, but never able to break free into broader orbits.

No city needs Obama's message of racial reconciliation more than Detroit. But he can't win the presidency without Michigan. With Kilpatrick gone, it's less likely that Detroit's divisions will cause his defeat.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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