Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just Make It Stop


Of all the disgraced politicians, Eliot Spitzer may be my favorite. He owned up to what he did rather than unendingly deny his actions then attack the legality of the investigation that ensnarled him. He took responsibility and stepped aside, avoiding the circus atmosphere that would have engulfed Albany and inhibited him from effectively doing his job. While most people would agree that sex with a prostitute is unbecoming behavior for most men – and especially one of the nation's governors – it is still just an adulterous affair. It could have been far worse. Spitzer didn't use public funds to bankroll his prostitution fix, nor did he compromise the office or his constituents by placing those he was having an affair with into government positions they were unqualified for, as his New Jersey counterpart did. It was more the wide disparity of his public crusades and his private indulgences that sunk his political ship. Regardless, the scope of damage could have been worse and Spitzer addressed it in a direct and prompt way, yet he still stepped aside.

And if Spitzer has set the bar for resignation, then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has surpassed it with plenty of room to spare. But the mayor hasn't taken a single cue from the former New York governor. A quick recap of the mess Kilpatrick has found himself in: Kilpatrick, son of a U.S. Congresswoman, was elected Mayor in 2001 at the age of 31. A young and charismatic leader, Kilpatrick was supposed to represent the promise and hope of a reborn Detroit. Unfortunately, Kilpatrick used the position's power and influence like a child would use a toy chest – picking and choosing the best way to entertain himself. There has been long rumors of a wild party of the mayoral mansion - the Manoogian (or Boogie-Down) Mansion - involving strippers and an alleged altercation between a dancer and Kilpatrick's wife. The young woman was shot dead in a drive-by shooting soon thereafter as her boyfriend sat in the front passenger seat of her car. The party instigated an investigation by internal affairs, but we derailed when the IA head and two cops were abruptly fired – or "misappointed" by the Mayor. The three sued the city for wrongful termination, knowing that they had been fired because of their impending exposure of the Mayor and his misdeeds. In the whistleblower trial, the Mayor and his female Chief of Staff (long-time friend) testified to no wrong doing and indicated that there was not an intimate relationship between the Mayor and his most immediate appointee. The city – at the Mayor's urging – agreed to a $9 million dollar settlement with the three cops in October. But early this year, the Detroit Free Press published rather salacious and implicating text messages between the Mayor and Chief of Staff of the two's affair and the firing of the three cops. It is pretty clear that perjury occurred. The Chief of Staff resigned soon thereafter and yesterday the Mayor was charged with 8 different counts, ranging from obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy. The former Chief of Staff also was charged with a half dozen or so charges. It is a huge mess, but the Mayor – despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary – expects to be cleared of any wrong doing and has refused to resign, even though an impending trial would take up much of the Mayor's time and attention away from a city that desperately needs it.

Kym Worthy, the prosecutor who charged the Mayor Monday, was exactly right…this is not a personal matter. If the Mayor just had an affair, then that could be considered an isolated and personal matter.

But the fact is that the Mayor flaunted and mocked the justice system during the whistle blower trail, ruined the reputations and careers of Detroiters who were doing their sworn duty while he was not, and the fact that the Mayor used $9 million from the city's coffers to cover up his embarrassing behavior. If any other city employee had cost Detroit close to eight-figures to avoid embarrassment, they would be ousted immediately. I am not entirely sure how the Mayor is any different.

And so the Mayor and his team have fallen into the familiar posture of deny, deny, deny and then attacking those who brought the mess to light. The Mayor has apologized, but not specifying what he is apologizing for and has hinted that his defense strategy will be based on proving that it wasn't his thumbs that pounded out the text messages to his Chief of Staff. The defense seems rather flimsy considering that Beatty has acknowledged the affair and resigned. The Mayor's team has also accused of the Free Press of being racially motivated, but the press seems to be willing to expose mayoral sex scandals regardless of race – take a look at San Francisco's mayor or George Ryan in Illinois, the white governor who is now serving time in rural Wisconsin for bribery charges. But Kilpatrick is hoping to rally his base by implicitly saying, "If I am removed, the white suburbanites have won and we can't have that." The Mayor used the N word at the end of the State of the City address, another strike to the wedge that continues to divide many of metro Detroit's residents. And since Worthy is black, they can't use the racially-motivated card against her, so they say the charges she has brought about are politically motivated. Those who have shown they have difficultly taking their responsibility seriously believe themselves to be the only ones who aren't culpable for this mess. Their hubris could not more clearly be shown.

But the Kilpatrick's fellow African-American mayors from across the country cancelled an annual meeting/convention at the last minute because the Mayor is political toxic, but I'm sure the administration would admonish that group for some inexplicable reason too.

And unfortunately, the Mayor's irresponsibility has put Detroit back on the front page for all the wrong reasons. While Kilpatrick cannot take credit for getting Comerica Park and Ford Field built, nor attracting some of the world's most prestigious sporting events, or for the move of General Motors to their current downtown location, Kilpatrick has been at the helm of a remarkable seven years in Detroit, including the opening of the RiverWalk, Campus Martius Park, some positive neighborhood development, and perhaps the most important and memorable week in Detroit's long history – that first week of February 2006, when the nation descended onto Detroit for Super Bowl XL. Expectations were not only met, but clearly exceeded and while Kilpatrick cannot take much personal credit for the week's success, it did happen under his watch and its glow shined brightly on the city's chief. However that brief era of good feelings has ended and Kilpatrick now finds the business community distancing themselves from a man they so desperately wanted – and needed – to succeed. Development will have to be put on hold, attention will be distracted, and the nation's newspapers will be splashed with stories out of Detroit that no one can be proud of. He has had successes, but this gathering storm is more than the city should be asked to withstand.

But Kilpatrick – selfishly and stubbornly – will not spare the city and his family the embarrassment as lawyers trying to define "sexual relationship" and "intimate contact". He will hope that one juror will be unconvinced or unwilling to send away a man who once held such promise, but now only holds a battered and mocked reputation. He will hope that his base will be rallied to re-elect him in November 2009, showing that they would rather have nothing entirely to themselves than share it with anyone from the outside. And he will hope that the text messages recently subpoenaed by the murdered stripper's family doesn't implicate him in a gruesome and unthinkable act. This seems to be bottomless.

And make no mistake, the biggest victims of this will be those that care about and live in Detroit. They have gotten hoodwinked by a irresponsible man who has used the tools of progress for personal enjoyment. They have not gotten the leader they need. And they have once again been embarrassed nationally in a way that other cities would find incomprehensible and simply not stand for. The longer Detroiters and its business community allows for this to go on, the more they will look like Kilpatrick's wife – and the litany of other weary and despondent wives of philandering politicians – hanging on because it's all they know and it's what they have come accustomed to. Detroit deserves better, even if they don't realize it.

1 comment:

David said...

"Kilpatrick cannot take much personal credit for the week's success..."
Because YOU deserve all the credit!! You, Detroit's tireless crusader, your keyboard parrying each thrust, every riposte challenging our stereotypes, sworn not to rest until all of America no longer looks down on Detroit like an illegitimate child.