The Rise and Fall of Kwame Man
The Tragic-Comic Tale of the Mayor of Detroit
art by Sean Bieri
story by Curt Cuyette and W. Kim Heron
Tale of two Kwames
by Curt Guyette
The facts behind this tragic comic
When Metro Times profiled mayoral candidate Kwame Kilpatrick way back in October of 2001, he told us the same thing he'd recounted for others while out on the campaign trail: A sign from God had convinced him to seek the job.
Kilpatrick, just 31 years old at the time, described going to the basement of his two-story home in Detroit's Russell Woods neighborhood and opening his Bible. His eyes immediately fell upon the book of Samuel and the story of how a 30-year-old David became king and united the 12 tribes of Israel.
"That day, I decided to do what God wants me to do, instead of making excuses," Kilpatrick said.
At that point, the mayor-to-be was already a political wunderkind, born with politics in his blood. His mother would go on to become a U.S. congresswoman. And his father, after serving on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, became a top aide to the late Ed McNamara, the county executive who controlled the levers of a storied Democratic political machine. After a stint in the state Legislature — winning a seat previously held by his mother and eventually becoming the first African-American chosen as the House Democratic leader — the former college football star, schoolteacher and lawyer rolled over veteran politico Gil Hill to win the job of mayor.
In a town where pastors can play a powerful political role, it never hurts to be seen as "God's guy." But we saw a cautionary note in Kilpatrick's self-serving Bible story, pointing out that one of the possible lessons to be gleaned from the story of David involves the troubles arrogance can cause for youthful leaders, and the pitfalls that may await for the chosen who stray from the Lord's path. Note was made of the problems caused by David's extramarital pursuit of Bathsheba.
It proved to be prophetic.
The young mayor took office in January of 2002, and before long was being described as a rising star to watch in the universe of Democratic politics. Almost as quickly, the black hole of a rumor surfaced.
The party that officially never occurred is rumored to have taken place during the autumn of 2002 at the Manoogian Mansion. At that time, the mayoral residence was still being renovated to accommodate the young first family and remained unoccupied.
The persistent story is that a bachelor party was held, with strippers as entertainment. One of the performers, Tamara Greene — who performed under the name Strawberry — would later be gunned down in an unsolved murder. According to what state Attorney General Mike Cox would eventually label an "urban legend," the mayor's wife Carlita supposedly showed up at the party and attacked Greene, sending her to the hospital.
There have always been questions about the way Cox handled the investigation, especially his refusal to require either of the Kilpatricks to provide a sworn statement. Those questions have only become more pronounced as a federal lawsuit brought by Greene's teenage son has progressed. In an affidavit filed as part of that suit earlier this year, former homicide investigator Alvin Bowman alleged that higher-ups in the department deliberately sabotaged the investigation into Greene's death. In a separate lawsuit filed by Bowman, the cop claimed he was demoted for investigating the Greene murder. A jury awarded him $200,000 in that case.
In August, Michael J. Kearns — a lieutenant in the Detroit Fire Department's EMS Division — alleged in a sworn affidavit that he witnessed two Detroit police officers interview an injured Tamara Greene, and that she claimed then to have been assaulted by the mayor's wife. Kearns said he waited five years to come forward "out of fear for my career and my safety."
Looking back on his career and the scandal that brought him down, there seem to have been two Kwame Kilpatricks.
There is the skilled politician whose brilliance, charisma and ability inspire intense devotion. And there is the scoundrel who plays by his own rules, living the high life on the public's dime, using his position to help feather the nests of family members and friends.
The public face is that of a devout Christian and family man. In private though, according to allegations that eventually surfaced in civil suits, he was a player, the hip-hop mayor who rolled with an entourage and enjoyed illicit trysts in places like the back room of a neighborhood barbershop.
A self-promoter to the end, Kilpatrick again trumpeted his many accomplishments on the day he pleaded guilty to two felonies and no contest to a third. The day he submitted his letter of resignation, he admitted to making mistakes, but offered no apology as he prepared to leave the mayor's office and head to jail.
"Under this administration, Detroit has become an example of progress," he said. "I am proud of the fact that we as a community have been able to accomplish so much."
He talked about the city's successful hosting of the Super Bowl in 2006, construction of the promenade that has helped transform the city's riverfront, and renovation of the historic Book-Cadillac Hotel and 75 other buildings. He spoke, too, about the massive paring of the municipal workforce to lop $100 million from the city's budget to keep Detroit solvent as revenues continued to slide.
Kilpatrick said all of this and more occurred "in spite of the worst economy the city has seen since the Great Depression."
The speech, however, ignored the numerous scandals that have plagued his administrations throughout both of his terms in office. Some of the transgressions seem minor in retrospect, such as the story of Kilpatrick's motorcycle joyriding, which involved diverting three Police Department cycles from regular use for his security team. Other stories, like the 2005 scoop from WXYZ-TV reporter Steve Wilson about the red Lincoln Navigator the city secretly provided to Carlita Kilpatrick, are particularly telling. Caught red-handed, so to speak, Kilpatrick's initial response was to lie, denying that the pricey vehicle was being used to chauffeur around his wife and children. When the evidence proved otherwise, he blamed the problem on miscommunication.
Also surfacing in 2005 was a Free Press report that revealed the mayor had racked up $210,000 on a city-issued credit card during his first 33 months in office, with taxpayers picking up the tab for "spa massages, Moet & Chandon Champagne and lavish meals."
The local media continued digging up dirt on the mayor, revealing a side to him that was in direct contrast to the God-fearing, family man image he fostered. There was the refusal of Washington, D.C., police to provide security for the Detroit mayor as he partied at clubs in the nation's capital. Particularly damning were sworn allegations made by former mayoral bodyguard Walt Harris, who accused the mayor of meeting women for secret trysts. While on the job protecting the mayor, Harris recounted during testimony, there was one incident where a woman came down from her apartment wearing a fur coat with nothing underneath as she met with the mayor late one night. The police officer also described the mayor having a clandestine meeting with then-Chief of Staff Christine Beatty in a hotel room while the two were out of town on city business.
Harris, who resigned from the department and moved out of state, would eventually obtain a $400,000 settlement from the city in a whistle-blower lawsuit.
Kilpatrick's typical response to such allegations was to deny, deny, deny as long as he could, casting aspersions on his accusers. He also blamed the media for his problems, at one point accusing news outlets of being "demonic" as they reported titillating charges just to boost ratings and circulation.
And when trapped, he resorted to contrition and turned to the clergy for support. As he ran for re-election in 2005, he admitted to making some mistakes during his first term but claimed to have learned his lesson, having matured during his first term. Local clergy lined up behind him, urging voters to give the young mayor the benefit of the doubt. To the surprise of many — and with an influx of cash from some of Detroit's leading businessmen — Kilpatrick was able to stage an upset victory over challenger Freman Hendrix to win a second term.
The seeds of Kilpatrick's downfall were sown in 2003 when he fired Gary Brown, the deputy chief who led the Police Department's Internal Affairs unit. In a 2004 whistle-blower lawsuit, Brown asserted that he was fired for looking into allegations of overtime abuse on the part of the mayor's security detail. Brown claimed also that he was fired because his unit was looking into the rumored Manoogian party and the alleged assault. Joining that suit was Harold Nelthrope, a former member of the executive protection unit who claimed he was harassed for bringing the allegations to the attention of Internal Affairs.
Kilpatrick certainly had reason to fear an investigation would lead to claims he used police bodyguards to help facilitate his philandering.
True to form, Kilpatrick strenuously denied the allegations, claiming his accusers were simply looking to get a big payout from the city.
The case finally went to trial in 2007, with a Wayne County jury unanimously finding in favor of the officers, awarding them more than $6.5 million. Kilpatrick — intimating that the city lost because the jury was mostly white — initially vowed to appeal the decision, then suddenly reversed course and signed off on an $8.4 million settlement — including $400,000 to end a second suit filed by Harris.
"Since the verdict, I've listened to pastors, [business] leaders and so many Detroiters who genuinely love and care about me and this city," Kilpatrick said at the time. "I've humbly concluded that a settlement in the civil cases involving the three former officers is the correct decision for my family and the entire Detroit community."
But, as it turned out, he was lying again. The real reason for the settlement was that Mike Stefani, the attorney for the cops, had obtained text messages reportedly indicating that Kilpatrick and Beatty had lied under oath — both about their affair, and the claim that they had not actually been involved in the firing of Brown.
Everything began to unravel for the mayor in February, when the Free Press — having obtained those text messages through a source that has yet to be revealed — published excerpts of the messages exchanged between the mayor and his chief of staff, who quickly resigned once the embarrassing information was made public.
After months of legal wrangling — and following new charges that Kilpatrick assaulted two officers from the Prosecutor's Office as they attempted to serve a subpoena — Kilpatrick finally pleaded guilty last week as Gov. Jennifer Granholm began hearings that could have led to her removing the mayor from office.
To the end, though, Kilpatrick remained defiant, vowing that he'd rise once again, saying that novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald — at least as it applies in the case of this particular mayor — got it wrong when he wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. As Kilpatrick explained, Fitzgerald wasn't from Detroit, a city where rebirth is part of its fabric.
Even with jail looming, and then five years of probation to follow, Kilpatrick — with his wife looking on adoringly — vowed that he would not be gone from the city's political scene forever.
"I want to tell you, Detroit, that you done set me up for a comeback. God bless you."Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]