On the run: Gil Hill

Oct 10, 2001 at 12:00 am

Waiting. We’re all waiting. Gil Hill and his faithful entourage are waiting for more reporters to arrive for his 2 p.m. press conference at a home in Detroit’s west-side Brightmoor neighborhood. The few of us who show up this rainy September day are waiting for the Detroit mayoral candidate to announce how he plans to win the general election after getting trounced in the primary eight days earlier.

We “ink-stained wretches,” as Hill teasingly refers to the press, sit on red velvet furniture and make quiet chitchat as the candidate and his staff mill about the two-story home. Hill’s press secretary stands in the hall entrance whispering into her cellular phone. Plainclothes officers look like Secret Service agents as they peer around the rose-colored room, seldom saying a word or cracking a smile. A young woman in black leather pants points at a photo of another young woman on the mantel. “She was shot and killed,” she says.

I wonder why Hill is holding a press conference in this house. I ask Charlie Williams, Hill’s campaign chairman, who chews gum and greets reporters like old friends.

Williams, who headed five city departments and served as chief of staff for Coleman Young, prefers to let Hill explain.

A couple more reporters arrive, dragging their wet shoes across the cream-colored carpeting. Hill scolds his press secretary about the scuff marks.

“Who’s going to clean the carpet?” he demands. Like an ornery old man, Hill shouts at her a second time, trying to get the media’s attention before breaking into a smile. Hill acts gruff, which he generally is, but hams it up for our benefit.

Nonetheless, Hill is agitated. Maybe he is still recovering from the primary — and the terrorist attack that overshadowed the other events of that day. Perhaps he’s frustrated that at 2:20 only five reporters have shown up for his grand announcement — and not one of us is holding a TV camera. Or maybe the politician doesn’t want to do what is expected of him: convince the public — with help from us ink-stained wretches — that he is absolutely, hands-down, the best guy to be Detroit’s next mayor.

With a look of resignation, he turns to his press secretary and says, “We better get started, I guess.” The man who should look like he intends to step into Dennis Archer’s shoes schleps to the head of the room to deliver a brief speech with little eye contact and what seems like forced enthusiasm.

Not much of a start for a guy whose mission is to turn his campaign around after trailing state Rep. Kwame Kilpatrick in the primary by more than 17 percent of the vote. To do this he needs to show less of the dejected candidate — and more of the impassioned orator I also witnessed on the campaign trail. The question is this: What will Hill reveal to the voters, the final arbiter of his fate?

A good deed

Jewelean Phillips cries in Hill’s arms, thanking him for his support after her daughter was robbed and fatally shot in the head at an ATM eight years ago.

“You were there when nobody else was,” says the 63-year-old woman, who owns the home where we are gathered.

Phillips called Hill hoping he could help find her daughter’s killer. Though the case was never solved, she says that the council member comforted her through a painful period.

“He prayed with me,” says Phillips, drying wet eyes with a tissue. “I called him at his office 15 times, and he’d always take my calls.”

To Phillips and other loyal constituents, Hill is all about being there for others when they need him most. He is the reserved patriot who can reach the heart of a grieving mother. His campaign strategists are trying like mad to bring this man to the fore. But he is hard to budge.

It must not be easy for the former homicide detective, who seems to be skilled at keeping his emotions at bay, to dwell on his soft side. After all, he is a guy’s guy who loves Tom Clancy novels, and testosterone-charged movies like Battle of the Bulge and Shane and says his heroes are “uniformed police officers” and the fighter pilots who flew over Japan and Europe in World War II.

All Hill manages to mutter about the kind deed he did for Phillips in 1993 is little more than: “It’s something I did, I’m glad.” Beyond that, Hill, who isn’t one to brag, shrugs it off.

He’s not much better at highlighting his City Council successes. The slow talker gets bogged down and loses his audience with phrases like “commercial strip revitalization task force” and “automotive jobs task force.” What he wants to get across is that he helped bring strip malls to neighborhoods and made it possible for young folks to get auto-plant jobs. At Phillips’ home he is supposed to convince the press that he is gearing up to cream Kwame. And so he begins: “It’s a new day in Detroit,” he says loudly, reading from a prepared speech, leaning on Phillips’s big-screen TV.

“It’s a new day in Detroit,” he bellows again.

He then offers a few campaign promises — such as safe, clean neighborhoods, 21st century schools, lighted streets — that sound as hollow as they are difficult to achieve.

What Hill needs is a dose of Martin Brest, the movie director who ingeniously cast him in the role of Inspector Todd in Beverly Hills Cop — the catalyst that launched his political career.

“Gil, I know you can do this,” Brest might tell him. “You were brilliant in those Beverly Hills Cop movies. Now, act like a man who wants to be mayor. Be confident. Be succinct. Be gracious. And, damn it, Hill, be excited!”

But he never quite gets there, at least not at Phillips’ home. And maybe that is because he is playing a role that does not truly suit him. In fact, it is not until later that night, when Hill describes his days as a homicide detective — and what he overcame to become one — that the candidate shines.

King of the Hill

About 25 folks are gathered at the Henderson Memorial Church of God in Christ, a modest space with a simple interior. Hill sits up front alongside a couple City Council incumbents eager to sell themselves to these voters from the working-class neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side. The residents regularly gather for their homeowners association meeting, but tonight they are there to hear from the candidates.

Hill, slim and sleepy-eyed, begins speaking at his usual slow pace, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is shifting his campaign strategy. For the first time since the City Council president declared his bid for mayor last summer, he takes a swing at the 31-year-old Kilpatrick, leader of the state House Democratic Caucus.

“What has my opponent done?” Hill asks. “He talks real good, but tell me, what has he done?”

By Hill’s account, Kilpatrick is to blame for the public school takeover, despite voting against it, not to mention doing away with the residency rule that required cops and other civil servants to live in Detroit, and the loss of state revenue sharing. An occasional cheer or “That’s right” resounds from a couple folks. But the majority sit mute.

Hill is not derailed by the modest response.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve done,” he continues. Other than the applause he receives when pointing out that he helped create a fare reduction and elimination initiative that allows senior citizens to ride public buses for free, and poor families and students to ride for reduced rates, his litany of accomplishments draws little response.

But when the 69-year-old father of three — and grandfather of three — begins to lay out the personal differences between himself and his opponent, the audience tunes in.

“I’m not the type of person who went through life easy,” says Hill. “My opponent will tell you that he dreamed of being mayor when he was 5. … I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and I couldn’t dream of being a police officer or a firefighter or anything. The only thing my mother — when she was doing her domestic work — would worry about is whether or not she would come home and find her son lynched for no reason.”

Hill’s voice fills with passion; his eyes, usually aimed at the ground, are planted on the voters.

“I remember members of my family being beaten because they wanted to go to college,” he shouts.

It’s a shame for Hill that I am the only reporter to witness his moving oration. But maybe the flashing lights, microphones and cameras stifle him.

“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Hill says about Kilpatrick, “but everything I got in my life I paid for dearly.”

Hill certainly has. His mother raised her two children alone; he had only seen his father, who has passed away, a handful of times. The family struggled to stay afloat. When Hill told his mother he wanted to go to Howard University, her eyes filled with tears, knowing full well it would not happen. And the young man who dreamed of becoming a pilot had his hopes dashed when he joined the Air Force in 1950. After passing an aviation test, he was denied entry to the school; they said he didn’t have enough teeth.

“At that time, they could tell you anything to keep you out,” says Hill, shrugging his shoulders.

But the racism he endured did not keep him down. Hill relishes the evening as he tells the small church crowd about his early days on the police force when few blacks were hired.

“In those days, we knew each other by name, precinct, wives’ names, kids’ names,” he says smiling.

Folks laugh with this quick-witted spirit, who relaxes, jokes and praises his city.

“I love Detroit because it gave me the opportunity to be great” says Hill. “I was a great homicide detective. I was great at it because I worked it. If you have the chance to seize greatness, do it.”

For a brief moment on the campaign trail, the man who survived Jim Crow is the king of the hill.

Breakfast from hell

Hill and a slew of volunteers, including his shy wife, Delores, serve eggs and biscuits to seniors at Freedom Forum in Lafayette Park on a sunny morning during the third week of September. Visiting with seniors has been a staple of Hill’s schedule since he took office in 1989, which is why everyone, including him, was surprised that he did not capture the majority of the absentee votes that are cast mostly by seniors.

Hill is desperate to garner their support and nearly begs the 45 or so seniors with whom he visits that day to vote for him. “I don’t know what happened this time,” he says, referring to the primary. “But I absolutely need your support.”

Then he starts in on Kilpatrick again, a tactic he will repeat endlessly on the campaign trail.

“What has my opponent done for the people of the city of Detroit?” he begins.

“Nothin’,” a senior shouts. “Gone backwards,” says another.

“I just ask you to compare our records,” says Hill, reminding them that he is responsible for bringing casinos to Detroit and the thousands of jobs averaging $27,000 annually plus benefits. Jeffrie Pope, 52, leans over and whispers to me, “I don’t like casinos. I didn’t support them.”

But that doesn’t mean that Pope won’t vote for Hill.

“I like the youth in Kwame,” he adds. “But Gil has a proven track record. I’m really undecided.”

He does have a proven track record, or “experience” as he and his supporters fervently repeat.

And this is part of Hill’s challenge. By taking a stand on controversial issues — like casinos — some constituents are unhappy with him, he says.

Unlike his opponent — whose impact on Detroit is less obvious to voters — Hill is beaten up for not doing more as council president. But there isn’t much he can do without his colleagues’ support, he says. That is why he wants to be mayor; then he will have the power to institute change — as well as see the city through the hard times he says are sure to come.

“I have faced adversity,” he says, drawing an unspoken contrast to his opponent. “I have seen hard times.”

And he lets listeners know that they will likely see hard times too. Mayor Archer has announced that the city is facing a $30 million-$40 million budget deficit this year, Hill says. In situations like that, he warns them, you need an experienced hand on the tiller.

“If the majority of the population is laid off, what do you think will happen to you?” he asks them.

Most of the seniors seem unfazed by Hill’s fire-and-brimstone style. But he doesn’t relent.

“Everyone is going to catch hell,” he warns, about the brewing recession. “Hell is on its way to breakfast.”

The reluctant debater

If hell hits Detroit, who can carry us out of the fire? Questions of this kind are pelted at Hill and his opponent at public debates.

At the Detroit Athletic Club, Hill and Kilpatrick sit before the Urban Land Institute — aka white male developers — who invited them to debate. Moderator Chuck Stokes, of WXYZ-TV Channel 7, asks what are the three major barriers facing developers in Detroit. Hill mentions that the Building, Safety and Engineering Department needs an overhaul — including more staff, staff training, a new location and the ability to take developers through the bureaucracy. But he does not get around to naming the other two barriers.

When Kilpatrick cuts out early to head to Lansing (to vote on an education bill), his adviser Conrad Mallet takes his place. But Hill objects. It’s not that Mallet — a former state Supreme Court justice — bothers him, he says. It’s just that that he doesn’t like the idea of “competing for who can give the best answer,” and suggests that the club invite him back for a solo Q&A.

I’m tempted to approach the platform and whisper in his ear, “Hello, Mr. Hill, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are competing.”

But someone else must have done just that before the next debate two weeks later. By then, Hill’s gloves are completely off as he stands before 300 or so sharply dressed members of the Women’s Economic Club at Cobo Hall. And it doesn’t take long before he lands his best punch.

He tells Kilpatrick that the public deserves to know more about a civic fund that Kwame kept on the QT until the Detroit Free Press reported it in August. Kilpatrick has refused to identify everyone who contributed to the fund and how it was spent, saying it had no role in the mayoral campaign.

Pow! The old guy’s hand meets flesh, metaphorically speaking, setting his massive opponent off like a cannonball. Kilpatrick is visibly upset and says that his press secretary Bob Berg — who was Coleman Young’s press secretary for 11 years — will not approve of him ripping into the Freep. He then proceeds to accuse the Freep of National Enquirer-like tactics.

At their next debate a week later, Hill, looking more confident from his last performance, receives word along with the 200 others sitting before him at Cobo Hall that Kilpatrick will be 12 minutes tardy (which turns out to be more like 40 minutes).

Hill takes advantage of the situation to begin bashing both his opponent and the media, which is not a bad ploy. He complains that the press fails to dog the young legislator for his tardiness, yet beat up on him before the primary for missing forums when the press knew full well that he had City Council meetings to attend.

But Hill loses his traction. Instead of taking advantage of Kilpatrick’s absence by engaging the audience and using the extra time to lay out his detailed vision for the city — which includes building affordable housing with the help of the skilled trades, selling vacant lots cheaply to entrepreneurs, faith-based groups and nonprofts to develop, setting up 13 management service zones (similar to mini-city halls) to address neighborhood blight and redeploying police officers — he wastes precious time alone in the spotlight going back and forth with moderator Guy Gordon of WXYZ-TV Channel 7 over the rules of the debate, coming off as petty. Finally, Kilpatrick arrives. The two bat around a few questions when Hill is suddenly teed off about the debate format. Gordon gives Kilpatrick one minute to rebut the council president’s previous statement. Hill objects.

Why should he get a rebuttal when I didn’t get to rebut his last statement, he asks the moderator in words to that effect. While Hill engages in a lengthy debate about the debate, Kilpatrick stands with his hands behind his back and waits quietly. Hill, and a group of supporters sitting in the front row who egg their candidate on, beat up on Gordon a bit before the news anchor offers the council president more time to elaborate on his point before Kilpatrick rebuts it. But after raising a stink and gaining a concession, Hill tosses it away. “Give him the rebuttal,” Hill says, tossing the ball back to Kilpatrick, who smoothly knocks it out of the park:

“This is the kind of confusion that has mired the city in the condition it’s in today. I pray for the city. I sincerely do.”

A final word

At Nemo’s, a bar on Michigan Ave., down the street from Tiger Stadium, I eat burgers and fries with Hill and talk with him one-on-one. Well, sort of one-on-one. He is flanked with his usual comrades, including a plainclothes police escort who drives him to the day’s events.

After a good 45 minutes, I ask Hill a question whose answer reveals a lot about this fight.

“Do you resent Kilpatrick for growing up in a time when he not only can dream of being mayor, but has a good chance of doing so at the young age of 31?” I ask.

“No, I don’t resent him,” Hill says without skipping a beat. “I think this is what we should be trying to do for every kid. Every person should grow up with the hope of being mayor. If I had to go through what I had gone through — and the people who came along the same time — if we didn’t do everything we could to make life better for folks like Kwame, then we would all be victims. I don’t resent him. I think that it’s great that he has that opportunity.”

And there will be plenty more opportunities for Kilpatrick. But for Hill, who turns 70 years old election day, this is likely to be his last.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected]