Keeping distance

Jun 18, 2008 at 12:00 am

Now that Sen. Barack Obama is running full bore as the Democratic candidate for president, worries about Michigan and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick have party faithful across the nation squirming. In what promises to be a tight electoral race, winning or losing any state could be the margin that makes or breaks a candidate.

Here in Michigan, which is considered a crucial "swing state," polls show the contest to be extremely close.

Part of Obama's problem is that state Democrats screwed up the primary by moving the date up and thus drawing the ire of the national party. Obama went along with the national party and chose not to campaign here; his name wasn't even on the ballot. As a result, Obama is just getting to meet Michigan voters and press the flesh around the state. Also, it didn't help that Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other state pols were in the Hillary Clinton camp, so those relationships have to be smoothed over too.

Obama's done some of the catch-up work with a couple of visits to places such as Macomb County and Grand Rapids. But he avoided Detroit and Kilpatrick until Monday when he came in for a late afternoon fundraiser followed by a rally at Joe Louis Arena. Kilpatrick wisely (did I say that?) skipped the rally, and Obama managed to thank every Democratic politician in the 313 without ever mentioning the mayor.

"Obama has his organizational work cut out for him," says Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle, who thinks McCain would come out on top if the election were held today. Obama "can win, but there is a very tough row to hoe for him. He has to maximize the Detroit turnout without turning off mainstream Michigan."

Normally a Democrat in such a situation could count on the mayor of Detroit to help with the catch-up work. A Democratic stronghold, the city of 900,000 is key to an Obama win in November. But the whole thing is complicated by Kilpatrick's text-message scandal, eight felony charges, a City Council bid to oust him from office and an embarrassing national media spotlight on the city. Polls show Detroiters about evenly split on support for the mayor, but his support is low outside the city. For Obama to win Michigan he needs a huge turnout in Detroit to offset McCain's outstate support — but at this point a divided Detroit does not bode well for Obama's chances.

"Kilpatrick is toxic to Obama," says Riddle, a vocal critic of the mayor. "When Obama comes in here and he campaigns, he has to tiptoe through the political tulips of Detroit. He cannot be perceived as being dependent on Kilpatrick for anything. Those boos at the Red Wings rally translate into votes for or against those who ally themselves with the Kilpatricks." (Riddle refers to Kwame and his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.)

Who would have imagined that two cops' whistleblower lawsuits against the city would come to this? The cases could have never gone to court if the mayor had chosen to settle them. Now the chain of events could affect this fall's presidential election ... and the direction of the entire country.

The arrogant mayor had an inflated sense of self in the past, but how he conducts himself over the next few months is crucial. Kilpatrick's survival tactic has been to embrace racial division. Obama is pointedly running as an American, not an African-American. His support suffers whenever race comes up as an issue. If he can handle himself adroitly in Detroit's racial powder keg, it may bode well for him elsewhere. If not ... he could be toast.

Staying away from Monday's rally at Joe Louis was a good move on Kilpatrick's part. Could this be the beginning of the mayor doing the right thing in other areas?

Scuttlebutt around town points to mischief on the part of some African-Americans in support of Sen. Hillary Clinton during the primary season. It's no secret that super delegates Kwame Kilpatrick and his mother, U.S. Rep. Carol Cheeks Kilpatrick, were Clinton supporters and that they held out on backing Obama until the very last moment when his candidacy was pretty much a done deal.

But what was most curious happened after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright came up as an issue for the Obama campaign, clearly costing Obama support. That's when Wright was suddenly embraced in some African-American circles in town. He was invited to speak at the April 27 NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner. Detroit Chapter NAACP President Wendell Anthony was in the inner circle of state Clinton supporters and was key to bringing Wright here.

"That would prove injurious to Obama's national campaign," says Riddle. "It was not just about selling dinners. Folks do strange things to support those who would be president. To assume that everybody who looks like Obama is for Obama is naive. Those in Detroit engaged in mischief."

Was that a mischievous grin on Kilpatrick's face as he gripped hands with Wright while Anthony stood behind them? Maybe not, but the photo op looked like the gang of three sucking up the media spotlight. Now Wright has slipped back into the shadows and should stay there for the duration of the campaign season. And Kilpatrick chose the low profile for Obama's most recent visit. I'm no soothsayer, so we'll just have to see how things turn out.

In the end, though, it looks like Mayor Kilpatrick is getting it. While at the Mackinac Conference, he said of Obama: "He's running a very smart campaign, and his campaign is not to be walking, holding hands, singing 'Kumbaya' with Kwame Kilpatrick."

Not only is Obama not singing "Kumbaya," when he sees the mayor, he's probably got something a bit more Dionne Warwick in mind, like, you know, "Walk on By."

When it comes to music, politicians put a lot of thought into what is played at their campaign events. I'm sure Obama won't be dancing and waving a fist to James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." As it is, he may have to denounce the godfather of soul if someone digs up a home movie of the teenage Obama shaking it to the nationalist groove. However, once he becomes the official nominee at the convention in Denver, we can allow him a couple minutes of JB's "I Feel Good." Other songs Obama should avoid are George Clinton's "Paint the White House Black" and anything by Public Enemy.

On Clinton's part, someone should guard against her being seen anywhere "Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)" is being spun, although she can be forgiven if she sends Obama samples of Kim Possible's "Call Me, Beep Me." It's also understandable if, as Obama and McCain grow weary of the search for running mates, they channel a little Al Green — "I'm So Tired of Being Alone."

McCain may want to stay away from Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," but if you see him with a big smile and singing the jingle "Viva Viagra" just look the other way. Hopefully when it's all over, for McCain the presidency will be a case of "Just my imagination running away with me. ..."

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]