Kwame Kilpatrick is on a mission from God. The state Democratic House floor leader says the Almighty intends for him to become mayor of Detroit, where he hopes to lead the city into the promised land of prosperity.
He concluded this one day last year after a long struggle: Like many in Detroit, the 31-year-old Kilpatrick wondered if he might be too young for the job.
As he tells it, he went to pray in the basement of his two-story home in Russell Woods, a west-side, middle-income neighborhood of older houses. He opened his Bible and turned straight to the book of Samuel and its account of how a 30-year-old David became king and went on to unite the 12 tribes of Israel.
“That day, I decided to do what God wants me to do, instead of making excuses,” Kilpatrick said during a recent interview at his Fisher Building press office.
Detroit’s native son believes his time is now (and anyway, he can’t run for his House seat again because of term limits). The lawyer, legislator, former teacher and college football star carries himself with all the authority of a prince who’s come home to lead his people.
Since announcing his candidacy in May, Kilpatrick has taken Detroit by storm (grabbing more than 50 percent of the primary vote in a field of 21 candidates). He’s got big ideas to match his big personality, and has won over many people with his charm and energy.
But despite the excitement surrounding his campaign, the young leader has already upset some people in Detroit by saying he doesn’t want his children exposed to the homosexual lifestyle, and he raised eyebrows with the statement that racism in Michigan is so severe the state qualifies as “the Mississippi of the North.” And questions continue to surface about the financing of his campaign.
As David illustrated, no human is perfect. Though he conquered Jerusalem and was remembered as a righteous, God-fearing leader, David also had that unfortunate fling with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed to cover it up. Indeed, God gave David many blessings at a tender age, but he was not always pleased with how the young king used power.
And what will be the moral of Kwame Kilpatrick’s quest? No one can say yet, because his is still a parable in progress. We do know, though, that his story has the sort of beginning that legends are made of.
Kilpatrick has a tale for every occasion, and this is one of his best: As a fourth-grader, he won the black studies contest at Detroit’s Fairbanks Elementary. One of the prizes was to meet then-Mayor Coleman Young.
“I was in awe,” Kilpatrick said. “I thought he was the greatest.
“I said to myself, ‘One day, I’m going to be mayor.’”
He was 9 years old.
So if he seems well-equipped to battle for the job of mayor at age 31, he should be. He’s been preparing for this moment since he was a boy. He attended Cass Tech and went on to graduate with honors in political science from Florida A&M. He became a Detroit Public School teacher, a coach and a Boy Scout troop leader. He earned a law degree from Detroit College of Law, then took his mother’s seat in the state House when she went to Congress in 1996. Last year he made history when his fellow legislators elected him to lead the House minority caucus in Lansing; he’s the youngest person and first African-American to do so. In that position, he’s been heralded as a peacemaker. He calls himself “a bridge builder.”
It’s easy to see why. He’s as comfortable wearing T-shirts as he is shiny, snappy blue-and-brown business suits, which he has tailored to fit his towering 6-foot-4, 290-pound body. He campaigns in tough neighborhoods as easily as he mingles with the elite.
And to think, all this for a guy who was a top prospect for the NFL as an all-American offensive tackle, until the last game of his senior year at A&M. During the Heritage Bowl, Kilpatrick threw out his back, his wife Carlita explained while walking precincts in northwest Detroit.
Was he devastated?
“Nah, Kwame’s not like that,” she said, shaking her head for emphasis. “He
wasn’t worried about it. He was ready to move on to the next thing.”
Full frontal assault
A stout woman with curly blond hair sits at a big round table near the entrance to Kilpatrick’s primary election party at the plush St. Regis Hotel. She barks orders and shakes her cane at people standing near the entrance to move them out of the way.
It’s unclear if she is trying to keep the entryway unobstructed for the sake of those trying to enter, or so she can watch the crowd of several hundred as they socialize.
Either way, when I sit down and ask the 76-year-old her name, she is indignant that I don’t already know.
She explains that she is Ruby Turner, senior coordinator for Kilpatrick’s campaign. She worked with Kilpatrick campaign adviser Charles Duncan, who also ran Al Gore’s successful Michigan campaign in 2000.
She has a long history in Detroit politics, stretching back to her days working for Mayor Coleman Young.
As the poll results roll in, showing (shockingly) that Kilpatrick has taken the mostly senior absentee vote from Hill, 42 percent to 41 percent, Turner bobs her head with satisfaction.
“This was no accident,” she proclaims.
Turner tells of how she planned barbecue dinners and ice cream socials for hundreds upon hundreds of residents at dozens of senior homes. Chicken, green beans, salads and cake abounded. Bingo games were set up and prizes raffled off.
“The food did not run out,” Turner said. Seniors were bused to sites, and “everything was free.”
“One of the women in my building got one of those TVs. Ohh, she’s so happy about that.”
Kilpatrick would show up for 15 minutes or more to talk with the residents and try his hand at bingo.
“He’s just like a great big teddy bear who loves to hug senior citizens, and who senior citizens just love to hug back!” Turner later remarked.
Early in the campaign, she wasn’t sure who to support, until Kilpatrick won her over. “I saw another Coleman in Kwame. He’s got fire in the belly. He’s young enough to get something done. If Gil Hill’s so great, why hasn’t he done anything in 11 years on City Council? Kilpatrick has accomplished much in 31 years. He’s just as qualified, if not more, than Gil Hill. Senior citizens want someone who’s going to get things done.”
Weeks later, the Detroit Free Press breaks the story that while Turner was out helping Kilpatrick provide seniors with free cake and TVs, she was also in the employ of the city Election Commission, responsible for helping seniors fill out absentee ballots. In that role, she was sworn to be unbiased.
The dual role ended when she resigned from her job with the city last week.
A Saturday to remember
More than a week after the primary, Kilpatrick bounded into his campaign office in downtown Detroit and scooped up one of his 5-year-old twin sons. The father had just spoken at a formal breakfast with fellow Alpha Phi Alpha black fraternity members, where he thanked his brothers for joining the movement “to transform Detroit into what God intended it to be,” and had changed his suit coat to a T-shirt.
He kissed the boy on the cheek and looked over to his wife, who had just completed tediously tucking a campaign shirt into the child’s neatly belted jeans and admonishing him to sit still and clean his face.
“Hello, wife,” Kilpatrick said to Carlita with a big grin. She shook her head.
The father plopped the boy down, whereby he immediately ran over to a gaggle of rambunctious cousins and friends playing amid the roomful of campaign workers and security guards.
Dad sat next to his wife, who was worn out and wanted some quiet. “Come here, boys,” Kilpatrick said firmly. “Sit down, calm down.” The boys immediately obeyed. The father talked to his wife and to his kids, quietly, while he changed his size 15 shoes.
Moments later, Kilpatrick strutted into another room where dozens of volunteers gathered around as their leader rallied his troops for another Saturday of knocking on doors.
“This is where we win,” Kilpatrick tells his workers. The group — mostly African-Americans, but young and old, men and women — are decked out in tennis shoes and “Kwame For Mayor” T-shirts. “Everyone can send mailings out. But not everyone can get out and walk door to door.
“East side team, I want to commend you. It’s an area we’ve never won before and we ate it up!” he says with bravo, and everyone laughs.
Afterward, the kids are rounded up and everyone heads downstairs where an entourage of vehicles — led by two large red SUVs, one carrying Kwame and the other driven by Carlita — heads north to the area around Pershing High School.
For the next several hours, the Partridge Family campaign barrages the neighborhood. Several dozen people walk down the street ahead of Kilpatrick. Sometimes, the candidate pulls up a chair and sits down to chat on the front stoop. Other times he’ll go right into the home to talk.
Despite the fact that Carlita is due with her third son in early December, she walks all the way, smiling and chatting with campaigners.
At some point in the sunny, crisp afternoon, we stop at a yard sale. An older woman demands of Kilpatrick, “If you get elected, don’t you make me go through 15 people to get to you! Don’t you forget my name! Don’t you go and get elected and then forget who put you there!”
“Yes ma’am, yes ma’am,” Kwame answers congenially, smiling all along.
Cruising with Kwame
Later that same afternoon, a hundred or so Kilpatrick supporters climb onto the Diamond Jack cruise boat for a somewhat-informal fundraiser down the Detroit River.
The boat rocks as we wait patiently for the candidate, who’s running late.
When he arrives, he makes a grand entrance in his campaign T-shirt and hat. He hugs, smacks backs, shakes hands, working the room with ease.
As we bob up and down, Kwame supporters gush to me that he’s got the brains, talent and experience to make Detroit a world-class city, “like Chicago.” I head upstairs to find the candidate.
Jazz is playing downstairs, while on the upper deck, they’re doing the New Hustle.
I find Kilpatrick listening to the music as he sits on a makeshift bench sticking out from the side of the boat.
I begin to ask questions. As always, almost like a computer, he’s on target. He lays out his plan. He knows his stuff. Despite the wind and movement and noise and long day, he doesn’t skip a beat.
He talks about the need for “walkable neighborhoods” and public transportation. He says there has to be continued focus on downtown, and that under his management city departments will be radically reorganized to, among other things, emphasize small businesses. He wants to get national-caliber urban planners here to help redevelop the neighborhoods. And get training and technology for the police so they can operate “in the 21st century.”
He points to the cement factories on the river bank and says he will move them “within 18 months” of his administration. “They’ve got to go. They’re stopping real development from happening down here.”
I ask, as others have, “How can you accomplish all of these things when Detroit is facing a deficit and the state could be headed to recession?” He says we can get millions and millions of dollars from Lansing and Washington, D.C., because he knows how to get the money and keep it (and heck, this is a guy whose favorite movie is The Godfather because “of the intense planning and strategy between the five families” to retain power.)
“The biggest misconception is that Detroit is a poor city,” Kilpatrick says, looking at me intently. “We’re not. We have plenty of money and people and resources. We’re just a woefully mismanaged city. We’re talking about organizing the city. Focusing. That’s not throwing money at the neighborhoods, that’s organization.”
As the boat cruises toward shore, I look out at the landscape of a city where half the children live at poverty level or below, and entire neighborhoods are occupied by vacant, burned-out shells that once were homes.
Kids aren’t experiments
One of the key issues in this election is the Detroit school system. And only one of the candidates has small children, raising a key question for Kilpatrick: Will he send his kids to public schools here?
“Hopefully, we will,” says the candidate.
“I’m hopeful that there are some Detroit public schools that can teach my kids what they need to know to compete in the new world economy,” Kilpatrick says. “We’re going to weigh that decision very carefully. But my kids aren’t experiments. They won’t go to public school just to say they go there.”
I later asked him how he could expect people to move into Detroit — another hallmark of his campaign — if he isn’t sure he can send his kids to the public schools? He says, first of all, Detroit should attract all kinds of new residents including “empty nesters,” young professionals and other childless folks. And furthermore, “I would love for my kids to go to Detroit public schools. But we are going to look at all the options,” including private and charter schools. Currently, his kids go to kindergarten at the same private day care they’ve attended since they were 2.
The real problem, Kilpatrick goes on to say, isn’t the quality of Detroit schools. It’s the perception of their quality. He points out that he went to Detroit Public Schools and went on to compete for national recognition as a leader. (He spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and was chosen to attend the John F. Kennedy Leadership for the 21st Century Program at Harvard University.)
“Some of the best education in the country is right here in Detroit,” Kilpatrick says. “We have always been measured by our failures and not our successes. I think that must change.”
Kilpatrick entered a smoky room atop the Ponchartrain Hotel to address a group of Teamsters. His pal and mutual friend of Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, introduced him as Detroit’s next mayor.
He smiled his boyish grin to the group of mostly men.
He said the world is different now after the terrorist attacks, but that one thing must remain unchanged.
“What has to stay the same is the working people, who rolled up their sleeves to build this country, must be protected and secure.”
He tells the group that his entire life, he’s been told he can’t accomplish things. For instance, when he entered Florida A&M, he was told he was too skinny to compete on the gridiron.
“I was getting my butt torn,” he joked to chuckles in the crowd. He explained how he went on to become captain of the team.
“My whole life, people told me I couldn’t do things,” he said. And he relished proving them wrong.
He gets a standing ovation.
After the speech, I head downstairs and go to speak with some women who had remarked at how large Kilpatrick is when he walked in. One of them, Natalie Flennoy of Detroit, says she doesn’t like the young leader much at all. She finds him arrogant, and she’s especially upset about the statement he made about homosexuals.
“He’s offended a lot of people, and he’s not even in the gate,” Flennoy says. “He should have never said that. There are a lot of closet gays in Detroit. His words hurt people.”
Just a bunch of fools
Kilpatrick shows up about 40 minutes late to a recent debate with opponent Gil Hill at Cobo Hall. He walks in with a well-dressed group of men and his wife, whom he kisses before taking the podium.
Despite the confusion swirling around the room over his tardy arrival and who gets the next question, he stands on stage with a big smile. He looks around the crowd of a couple hundred, finding familiar faces to wink and nod at and makes eye contact with a friendly smile. He puts his hands together in front of him and puffs out his chest.
He looks every bit the confident victor, and the debate hasn’t even started. He apologizes to the crowd, explaining that he had to stay in Lansing to protect millions of dollars for Detroit that Gov. John Engler had tried to erase. He purses his lips and says he was successful.
Hill goes on the attack, accusing Kilpatrick of stealing his platform. Kilpatrick, unflustered, strikes back at Hill for “glossing over” problems with the police and fire departments.
“We need serious people who are willing to address serious problems,” he says.
Meanwhile, a gaggle of women in the front row are hooting and hollering for Hill, interrupting Kilpatrick, and generally disrupting the event so much that not a lot of debating is going on.
As the situation gets noisier, Kilpatrick stands back, crosses his arms and looks off into the distance. Hill bickers back and forth with the moderator over who will get the last word.
Then it’s Kilpatrick’s turn.
“This is exactly the kind of confusion that has mired the city in the condition it is in,” he says disdainfully. “I pray for this city, I sincerely do. I sincerely do.”
“Yeah, we’re just a bunch of fools, aren’t we?” cackled someone in the front row.
Afterward, I panic because Kilpatrick’s left the stage already and I want to ask how the campaign is going. But it only takes me about two seconds to see him amid the sea of people.
His head sticks up above the crowd. He’s moving toward the hallway and, as usual, a throng of people buzz around, hoping to shake his hand or talk briefly or to simply follow him wherever he’s going.
Without needing to ask, I have the answer to my question.
My last vision of the Kilpatrick entourage is outside Cobo, as Carlita speeds off in her shiny red SUV. The license plate says “2 DA TOP.”
And I wonder to myself if they’ll get there.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]