The new and improved Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick
March 29, 2007
Detroit’s hip-hop mayor grows into his job
Charismatic Kilpatrick matures and learns from his past mistakes to build and improve the city.
David Josar / The Detroit News
DETROIT — There’s a different Kwame Kilpatrick in the mayor’s office.
The hyperbole, the grandiose promises, the $7,000-a-month credit card bills, even the thumbnail-sized diamond earring of his first term are gone.
Kwame Kilpatrick, once known to Michigan and America as the Hip-Hop Mayor, has grown up, observers say.
“I thought, ‘who is this imposter?’ ” said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson after Kilpatrick’s bold, realistic and measured State of the City address earlier this month. “He has always been a great speaker and very, very smart. But this is a new Kwame Kilpatrick.
“The Manoogian Mansion playboy is gone.”
The maturity, say members of Kilpatrick’s inner circle and even his critics, will help the mayor deal more effectively with leaders, like Patterson, who have been at odds with Detroit over the years.
“He’s going to be taken more seriously,” said City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel — herself often on the opposing side from the mayor.
Those who know the mayor said the 6-foot-4 man on the dais in Orchestra Hall on March 13 — challenging Detroiters to pick up their trash, and to stop victimizing each other — was the same guy, with the same ideals, as the one who became the nation’s youngest big-city mayor in 2002 at age 31.
“The person that’s getting all the acclaim now has always been there,” said Bob Berg, press secretary to for the late former Mayor Coleman A. Young.
“Part of it is he been in the job now and things are starting to happen,” said Berg, a public relations man who also has worked for Kilpatrick. “That’s not a job you walk into one day and snap your fingers and everything changes.”
‘The franchise’ of Detroit
Spurring the gradual transformation, say those in his inner circle as well as one-time nay-sayers, is Kilpatrick’s near-political death in 2005, when he was Detroit’s first incumbent mayor since 1947 to finish second in the primary. He defeated Freman Hendrix in November to win a second term.
He also has credibility. Renovation has finally begun on the long-vacant Book-Cadillac Hotel and the city leads the state in new housing starts. “He has become the franchise,” said Cockrel, who regularly tussles with the mayor over his budgets, and questions whether the city can afford all his ideas. “He’s shown the results to become a leader.”
His leadership is expanding from tasks a mayor normally tackles. On Tuesday, for example, after attending a United Auto Workers bargaining session at Cobo Center, he revealed he has spent several months lobbying behind the scenes to bring more charter and private schools to Detroit.
Part of the maturity came with age, but for Kilpatrick — who turns 37 in June — it also came via trial by fire.
In his first term he was dogged by his liberal use of taxpayer-funded perks and unsubstantiated rumors of a wild Manoogian Mansion party.
Even now, Kilpatrick still faces an uphill battle as Detroit struggles with a stagnant tax base and a population mired in poverty.
His father, Bernard Kilpatrick, a political operative and former Wayne County commissioner, recalled a story the mayor tells about glad-handing for votes in 2001. An elderly woman said she couldn’t vote for him because he didn’t have “testimony” — a challenging event that steered his life.
“He didn’t have a testimony then, but now he has one,” the elder Kilpatrick said. “The missteps of the first term — the credit cards, the Navigator — he’s learned from that.
“He watches closely what he does and he thinks about it. Sometimes you have to go through something. He did that. And now he’s matured.”
When Kilpatrick ran against longtime City Councilman Gil Hill for the city’s top job in 2001, Cynthia J. Pasky, president and CEO of Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions, supported Hill.
But despite the pounding in the court of public opinion, Kilpatrick won her over.
“The one thing I really admire about the mayor is he has the ability to craft a vision,” said Pasky, who gave $10,000 to Kilpatrick’s political action committee for the 2005 election. “Look at any upcoming business person or CEO, one trait they have is to always to continue to improve. He’s the same person, but he’s really said ‘I can get better.’ That’s what people are seeing.”
Remembering his first term
Time has eroded the public fascination with the mayor’s lifestyle and performance that dogged his first term and included his liberal use of his city credit card and anger over city layoffs, shuttered recreation centers and the closure of the Belle Isle Aquarium.
The rumors of the Manoogian Mansion party gained credibility when three police officers sued the city claiming they were retaliated against for investigating. The cops also alleged the mayor met women for illicit trysts. None of the allegations was proven.
Meanwhile, the Police Department had signed a one-year lease for a red Lincoln Navigator to chauffeur the mayor’s wife, and city records show the mayor had charged $210,000 in 33 months to his city credit card.
The lowest point may have been in April 2005 when Time magazine ranked Kilpatrick one of America’s three worst mayors.
But as the mayor campaigned for re-election, he reconnected with Detroiters. He went to barbershops, nightclubs and rib joints.
Today, he regularly accompanies his sons on the drive to school, and takes yearly father-and-sons trips, so he can just be a dad.
Mayor is still learning
Still other facets of his life remain that led him being dubbed the Hip-Hop Mayor.
He and his family are chauffeured in a 2007 Escalade, and they are accompanied constantly by the executive protection unit, comprised of Detroit officers. When the mayor fell ill in Texas last summer, his wife flew to his side, accompanied by police.
Fourteen officers, according to the 2006-07 city budget, are assigned to the first family, and cost taxpayers $1.7 million a year.
Mayoral spokesman Matt Allen agrees Kilpatrick has changed, becoming a seasoned veteran. “Mayor Kilpatrick has been tested in every possible way and today stands as an expert among mayors, which is a long way from where he was the first day he took office,” he said.
Kilpatrick himself has talked repeatedly about taking a new tack on leading the city. After getting re-elected he said, “You will never hear Kwame Kilpatrick and party in the same sentence.”
At the end of 2006, he admitted he had to get more focused on what matters to people.
“This has been a learning process for me,” he said. “I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
Warren leader sympathizes
Warren Mayor Mark Steenbergh, who has soldiered through his own bad press, sympathizes with Kilpatrick’s rough patch.
“He started at a horrible time,” Steenbergh said. “The economy was bad. State revenue sharing was down.”
And it was his first term. “That’s always the hardest,” Steenbergh said. “You don’t know how things work. You’re trying to figure it out.”
The good will surrounding Kilpatrick and his charisma come as the state economy continues to erode, thousands of people move out of the city each month, and the percentage of Detroiters living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, grew 20 percent between 2000 and 2005.
Bernard Kilpatrick’s home is on the stretch of Jefferson Avenue his son passes on his way home from City Hall.
“He works late. Sometimes he’ll just call me at 10 p.m. and stop by,” he said. “He knows there are sweets, and knows there’ll be a piece of cake, and we’ll talk.”
The mayor’s father said his son has a rare combination of traits that enabled him to weather the political storm and will allow him to keep moving forward.
“There are people who are very charismatic and let others do the work,” he said. “And there are others who sit in the background and do all the work. My son is the rare person who can do both.”
You can reach David Josar at (313) 222-2073 or firstname.lastname@example.org.