The joke is on us 

The day after the story broke about the alleged Manoogian Mansion boogie, some of the younger guys I work with unloading package trailers during the early morning shift were cracking all kinds of jokes about Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Stories of an enraged wife who supposedly went ghetto-style on one of the strippers said to be at the party were irresistibly hilarious to them.

A lot of these guys are about half my age, not long out of high school, still trying to formulate a plan about what comes next in life. They are old enough to vote, and they perfectly fit the profile of the young voter the mayor says he is reaching out to. If Mayor Kilpatrick is the “hip-hop mayor,” then these young guys are definitely his constituency — or should be.

Maybe I misunderstood the nature of the joking, but it sounded to me like Kilpatrick’s alleged wild behavior was all too believably familiar to them. He was starting to look a lot more like one of the homeboys and a lot less like an executive. Nicer suit, much nicer way with words, and a hell of a nicer job, but underneath it all? The fellas sensed the mayor was being exposed as not that different from some of the guys they knew from around the way.

Once the election was over, I don’t think I ever heard any of them discuss the mayor for more than a passing moment — at least up until the allegations. In this testosterone-infused workplace conversations tend to center around sports, more sports, still more sports, women, slash-and-burn jokes, and maybe some music. But back when Kilpatrick was running for mayor these guys were paying close attention. Why? Because Kilpatrick was young, like they were; from the city, like they were; went to Detroit public schools, like they did. For the first time they sensed that just maybe there was reason to give more than half a damn about city government. Kilpatrick was the young brother who “made it out,” who had it goin’ on and who actually put his potential to work.

Now, many months later, the jokes indicated that they still identified with the mayor as being young like them — but not necessarily in a good way. The mayor’s alleged behavior was making him something of a joke. Maybe it was the dramatic way Kilpatrick denied everything, or maybe it’s just more fun to believe the scandal. Whatever the reason, it was clear their minds were made up: The mayor did it.

To touch base with the older set, I checked in with a buddy of mine and his wife. He is a member of the Detroit Police Department. Both are in their 40s, and both are convinced that “the mayor did it.” It should be said that neither of these two voted for Kilpatrick, but I still found it interesting to see how easily they believed the charges. Another friend of mine who works for Detroit Edison, and who has some pretty extensive city ties, claimed that he had heard from some fairly reliable sources within the Police Department that “the mayor did it.” His personal belief is that Mayor Kilpatrick has massive potential — but perhaps he’s just not quite ready for the job yet.

“In another five years I think maybe he would make a great mayor,” he said.

Yeah, except that he’s mayor right now.

So I went to my neighborhood health club where you can guess the topic of conversation. I heard jokes similar to those I’d heard at the job, and these guys were in their mid-40s and up. Once again the consensus — at least among the most vocal — seemed to be that this was an open-and-shut deal.

Oh, hell yeah he did it. Man, you know he did it. Sure he’s lyin’. That’s ’cause he has to.

I don’t know. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t. I’m still not sure whether I care. While I believe it was a huge mistake to fire Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown in the midst of his investigation into the Manoogian affair, I’m not so sure a wild party ought to be reason enough for Kilpatrick to be considered unfit for office — even if it happened. However, if the mayor’s wife really was guilty of sending a stripper to the hospital, as some versions of the rumor put it, well, that makes matters considerably more serious — because now we’re talking about a cover-up, and a nasty one at that. That’s aside from allegations and questions about payroll, auto accidents and other matters involving the mayor’s security detail.

If the party rumors are indeed baseless, it will still take the administration a long time to shake the jokes and giggles. As long as the humor is kept at whisper level then there’s not much to worry about; if the issue fades, then the jokes will dry up just as quickly. No fuel, no fire. However, if this thing winds up dragging itself out too much longer and the mayor becomes a full-blown joke in his own city, then it could place Kilpatrick’s administration even more on the defensive than it already is and make it nearly impossible for him to get anything done. It could also abbreviate his time in office. Quickly.

By rejecting the mayor’s choice for City Council and all but one of his bond issue proposals in the last elections, Detroiters signaled that they are getting fed up with how bad things are. A recent poll shows Kilpatrick’s approval ratings have damned near dropped into the toilet. If Detroit voters were willing to reject Kilpatrick’s agenda before this mess broke out, how hard will it be for them to ultimately reject him as well?

The worst part of that scenario is that Detroit doesn’t exactly have a deep bench of potential mayoral replacements. If Kilpatrick is forced to leave, or if his support shrivels, then what will Detroit be left with? No, the city won’t die without Kilpatrick. This is a very tough city. But Detroit could be placed on hold for a long time.

Maybe my friend is right. Maybe Kilpatrick is still too young for the job. Perhaps his more glaring screw-ups are proof of that. Consider, for instance, hiring officer Michael Martin — a friend — as part of the mayor’s executive protection unit, for instance. It seems Martin had previously been suspended from the city’s police force six times for various problems and infractions.

Still, ready or not, Kilpatrick is who we’ve got. Right here, Right now! Ready or not, this city sorely needs the mayor to live up to the expectations of those of us who voted for him. We can’t afford to place our hopes on the next time, or the time after that. We can’t afford to be placed on hold. We need to believe this city can work like a major city is supposed to work, and we need to believe that right now.

What we don’t need are any more bad jokes.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail

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