Question of style

May 21, 2008 at 12:00 am

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama discovered Michigan last week. He made visits to Macomb County, where he visited GM's Warren Stamping Plant, and to Grand Rapids, the heart of Michigan's Republican Party.

While here Obama was asked if he would seek the support of embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democratic super delegate. Obama deflected the question, saying that Kilpatrick had more important issues to attend to. In that moment we saw the fortunes of two African-American politicians moving on drastically different trajectories.

Ten years ago both were rising political stars firmly ensconced in their state legislatures. Today Obama is the presumptive Democratic candidate for president of the United States, while Kilpatrick is fighting to hold onto his position as mayor of Detroit — and there is serious doubt that he has any future political career.

I may be getting a bit ahead of myself with Obama's prospects, but it seems the only folks who aren't referring to him as the presumptive nominee are those deep within the Hillary Clinton campaign, where they are trying to invent some new kind of new math that will make her the winner. There may also be some Republican Hillary-haters who are holding out for the chance to run the anti-Hillary campaign they've been preparing for the past decade.

To me the difference in the situations of Obama and Kilpatrick is in part the differences in the politics they chose to embrace. Obama took the road toward a new kind of politics. Kilpatrick — despite early hopes that his experience in Lansing would lead him in a more unifying direction — is on a tried-and-true path, maybe not seeing that the political tide is turning.

"Obama is not exclusionary. He embraces and acknowledges his black identity, embraces this side of himself, but he is also part of the global community at large," says Latoya Peterson, editor of, a Web site that explores and challenges racial issues and concepts. "That is more beneficial to everyone in the long run. That's the new politics that Obama wants to move into. It's great to talk to the black community, but it doesn't preclude us from working with other people, others who have the same basic goals in mind."

Kilpatrick is steeped in the politics of the country's most racially divided urban area. The race card around here is so potent that Kilpatrick even played it to trump Freman Hendrix in the last mayoral election, successfully arguing a blacker-than-thou position to win a second term.

"He is risking more trouble for the city and was limiting his political potential even before the problems that he has now with the legal charges," says Tal Levy, a political science professor at Detroit's Marygrove College. "He is seen as a leader of African-Americans. If he wanted to run for governor that would be a big problem. It can help him in the short run. He will do whatever is necessary to get out of the situation he is in."

Kilpatrick is one of the Democratic super delegates that have been the object of so much media discussion the past few months. The race between Clinton and Obama is so tight that it's news every time a well-known super delegate commits to a candidate — although that tide has favored Obama lately. Right now, I doubt that either is ready to tout that the mayor of Detroit is in their camp. Kilpatrick may not even be welcome at the Democratic convention — a venue that in 2004 catapulted the relatively unknown Sen. Obama to national prominence. And it's unlikely that Kilpatrick will be able to broker any favors for the city in exchange for his vote.

The contrast in their styles is notable. When Obama called a local television news reporter "sweetie" last week he apologized the same day. When Obama was tied to the incendiary remarks of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he rose up and gave a speech that discussed race in a way that no politician has publicly discussed it before.

Kilpatrick's way has been to hide, deny and lie. Even before this business with Christine Beatty came out. When news broke that the police department had leased a Lincoln Navigator for his wife, Carlita, his lies turned what would have been part of a two-day news cycle into a several-weeks-long saga. He made race an issue after a Wayne County jury — correctly — ruled in favor of police officers in a whistleblower suit against the city.

Race will become a bigger issue in Obama's campaign. The closer he comes to the Democratic nomination, the more you'll see news articles quoting people who say they won't vote for him because he is black. Last week an article on The New Yorker website quoted a Kentucky man saying, "I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race."

I don't know where that came from. A few months ago Clinton had 20 percent more minorities on her campaign staff than Obama did. But that's what it comes down to, there are white people who just don't want to see blacks in positions of authority. (Memo to Kilpatrick: Don't quote me on that.) The rumors, innuendo and outright racial attacks on Obama are going to get a lot worse.

"We're getting a little bit of race-baiting," says Carmen Van Kerchove, president of New Demographic, a New York City-based diversity consulting firm. "It's more subtle than in the past. As a whole Americans like to think that racism is over. It's very much alive and can be exploited for political purposes."

In the general election, if polls show Obama to be popular, the racist claims will become less and less subtle, and less and less effective. By the same token, if Clinton becomes the candidate, a no-holds-barred gender war will be on.

The difference I expect to see with Obama is that he will take the race issue and discuss it intelligently. It's a discussion that America needs and has been ducking since it became obvious that policies put in place during the 1960s didn't make everything all hunky-dory. The only way for all Americans to win is to have a series of sincere discussions on the subject.

And Kwame Kilpatrick? For this election he will stand on the sidelines. Until his charges are settled, no national politician of any color wants to stand beside him. Obama certainly won't play race the way Kilpatrick does. It's the kind of small politics played by small people, and a losing proposition for all.

Here's something good for Detroit: On June 7, a Detroit Healing Walk will leave from the American Indian Health and Family Services, 4880 Lawndale, in southwest Detroit, and proceed to Fort Wayne and the Detroit River. There, Ojibwa elder Mona Stonefish will lead a healing ceremony. Cherokee musician Joe Reilly will lead singing during the event. The goal is bring healing to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth, says Reilly. Participants will gather at 9:30 a.m. The walk, open to all, is sponsored by AIHFS, the Detroit Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the All Saints Community Center and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. To register for the Detroit Healing Walk, call Nicole or Martha at 313-846-3718, ext. 1113.

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