Ode to Kilpatrick

So Kwame Kilpatrick is in jail and Detroiters are reading about what he ate for breakfast. As a reporter who covered Kilpatrick for this paper and The Detroit News, it's been surreal to watch the scandal from afar. (I live in New York now.)

My memory of Kilpatrick is still of a man larger than life. To imagine him in jail — well, it's hard to fathom.

I wasn't your run-of-the-mill Kilpatrick hater while I was in Detroit. On the contrary, I followed him for work and often found myself defending him. Yes, there were bad stories, I'd tell people, but there were lots of positive changes in the city.

His administration's constant suggestion that bad news was part of some racist, suburban conspiracy got in my head. I lived in the city, but was ultra-cognizant that I was part of a mostly white, mostly suburban media pool. Despite the fact that the nation has just elected Barack Obama president of the United States after the man seemed to transcend the issue of race altogether, we all know that there is plenty of racism in the country, and certainly in the Detroit metro area. "Was Kilpatrick right that we were racist, that the barrage of bad news was a witch hunt," I would ask myself?

Despite Kilpatrick's well-known problems, I believed he was who he said he was.

Now I feel duped.

Watching the story unfold has been difficult. Kilpatrick polarized the region. He polarized newsrooms and relationships. And he polarized the two sides of my brain: the part that wanted to believe this incredibly charismatic, smart guy could fix Detroit and the part that worried he was a crook. My mother always said where there's smoke, there's fire, and on top of all the annoying aspects of this story is the fact that it has proven my mom correct yet again.

I'm haunted by memories that should have served as warnings. One exchange with Christine Beatty — the mayor's confidante and power broker (she negotiated union contracts, inspiring fear as a force to be reckoned with) — stands out.

We were at a press conference, and the mayor was announcing a new press secretary (he went through a slew). When Kilpatrick campaigned, he promised to run an open government. Quickly it became clear his administration had little regard for reporters' queries. It took me three months to find out how much the city spent on sidewalk repairs. The mayor's media folks were inexperienced. A vibe started to emerge of an administration at war with the press.

I asked the new hire if she was going to improve access to information. Beatty quickly grabbed the mic and said the administration had great media relations.

Afterward, a couple reporters thanked me for asking the question on everyone's mind. Beatty walked up to me, irritated, and asked what I was talking about.

I said to Beatty something like, "Hey, you know, I've been a reporter in other cities. And local governments all over the country generally follow Freedom of Information Act laws, and generally deliver answers to questions that fall within the realm of public information."

Beatty got really mad. She started waving her finger in my face, whipping her head around, telling me off. She said, "I don't care how they do it in other cities. This is Detroit, and we'll do it our own way." Then she stomped off toward the mayor, who was preparing for a TV interview. She straightened his tie. The way she looked at him that night, I knew she was in love with him.

I respected Beatty and get no pleasure watching her public humiliation. But our argument, repeated many times over the years, illustrates the administration's attitude: They made the rules, and to heck with the press.

Other memories stick out, such as when Kilpatrick told me his favorite movie was The Godfather, because he liked the way the five families worked together to manage the "business."

I followed Kilpatrick when he first ran for office, walking door to door with "Team Kilpatrick" members decked out in bright green T-shirts stating "Right Here, Right Now." They knocked on doors never visited by a politician. Back then, Kilpatrick's wife was pregnant and the campaign had a JFK-esque vibe to it: the handsome, exuberant father bounding about to discipline the kids or caress his wife between pep talks to his campaign volunteers. It was hard not to like them. They were so positive about modernizing Detroit.

I remember watching Kilpatrick talk to teens about how he once worked at Burger King.

"I was not an exceptional student," he'd say. "What I had, that you can have, is a will to win. If you're not good, get good. Say to yourself 10 times a day, 'I will not quit. I will not quit.'"

I used to wonder which of his stories were false. Now I wonder if any were true.

A few journalists saw through the deceit and wouldn't stop till they uncovered the truth. This paper, for instance, bucked the tide of editorial support the first time Kilpatrick ran. Metro Times was the only paper not to endorse Kilpatrick back in 2001; some of my co-workers were adamant he couldn't be trusted well before the rest of the media caught on. For years, my colleagues at The Detroit News produced diligent and impressive coverage of the mayor.

And then there are M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer at the Detroit Free Press, the guys who broke the text message scandal in addition to a host of other brilliant investigative reports on Kilpatrick. They were more than inspired and tireless; they were fearless.

Over time, there was an increasing atmosphere of intimidation in dealing with the Kilpatrick team. Top administration officials would call meetings with editors to complain about reporters (namely Elrick). Most people know about the physical intimidation involving TV reporters, not to mention the name-calling that was directed at radio personality Mildred Gaddis, an African-American accused of racism for criticizing Kilpatrick.

When Kilpatrick was running for re-election, I attended many campaign events where there was an aggressive vibe. When Elrick was in attendance, Kilpatrick would sometimes call him out, telling the crowd not to believe the propaganda of the local papers. The implication was clear: All bad news was a suburban conspiracy against the mayor. At a church service at Bishop Andrew Merritt's Straight Gate International Church, I honestly felt fearful for Elrick's safety. People would hiss at him, at me and others; we were part of the enemy team.

I talked to Elrick last week about this. He said it wouldn't have mattered if the mayor was red or green. The man seemed "pathologically incapable of telling the truth."

"My thinking was simple. I'm going to find out what the deal is, and I'm going to report it," Elrick says. "I'll let people say what they're going to say."

He said he never felt the mayor accused him of racism. Elrick lives in the city, and the mayor always recognized that, he said.

"I wish more reporters lived in Detroit," Elrick says. "But these newspapers are in the city, we're major employers, we're major taxpayers, and we have a major stake in the city.

"Things have to be decided on the facts. When the facts can be trumped by other stuff, then we're in a lot of trouble."

Elrick said some people accused him of having a personal vendetta against the mayor.

"I learned a long time ago you always end up where you are meant to be. I think that's true with stories too. I'd rather have people question my motives," as opposed to "not doing the stories because you are worried about what people are saying.'"

I once told an editor at Metro Times I wished I were black so I could better cover Detroit. He said that was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. Of course, he was right. We are what we are, black, white, city, suburb. We have to be true to ourselves and trust our instincts and intellect; and, for journalists, our mission to find the truth.

Lisa M. Collins is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She misses Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]
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