Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick squares off with Sen. Barack Obama
Obama, Kilpatrick off to a rough start
May 7, 2007
As first encounters go, it could have been better.
But a recent phone call between presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was, shall we say, a little prickly.
Word is it went like this: In advance of his speech today to a sold-out Detroit Economic Club, Obama calls Kilpatrick to touch base, ask for his support, get to know him a little.
Kilpatrick, not yet committed to any presidential candidate, challenges the senator with a pinch of bluster about the nature of Obama’s broad, cross-racial campaign. He asks Obama whether he’d be comfortable standing in public next to a 6-foot-4 black guy from Detroit.
Obama, no shrinking violet, then fires back, saying he thinks he could handle it just fine — as long as Kilpatrick loses the earring.
Now, it’d be silly to make too much of this exchange. The pair won’t meet face to face until today. Their rough start could just have been about swagger.
Obama’s people say he knows the mayor has accomplished much in the city, and that Kilpatrick lost the ear stud long ago; the senator meant no harm, they say.
And the mayor’s people say Kilpatrick took no offense. He just wants to get to know what Obama’s about. Indeed, Kilpatrick will host today’s luncheon and introduce the senator. They’ll also talk privately during the day.
But that initial testy banter is worth noting, both for a chuckle and because it highlights a challenge that nags the Obama campaign.
He’s the first black guy to run for president without an urban agenda or its subtext — race — at the center of his campaign. It marks wonderful progress for this country that he can do that. His wild popularity right now, and the corollary idea that he has a sporting chance, owes directly to his ability to stay out of the political pigeonholes that doomed black candidates who came before him.
At the same time, it’s natural for big-city mayors such as Kilpatrick to wonder whether the senator might be avoiding too much talk about urban issues for fear that it will alienate supporters who are excited by his message of unity and hope.
Let’s face it: When you start talking about the deep poverty that afflicts urban areas and the solutions — regarding health care, education and job creation — that they cry out for, some folks get uncomfortable. That’s even truer when race, still an aggravator for all of those ills, enters the picture.
And no, this isn’t more of the obnoxious prattle over whether Obama is “black enough.” I’ve got no patience for that.
It’s about whether he can be a candidate whose broad base visibly and forcefully showcases urban leaders, their constituents, and their issues.
I’m sure that’s the point Mayor Kilpatrick was making during the phone call — even if he was a little boorish about it. He has said similar things publicly, including on a recent NAACP panel where Kilpatrick noted that candidates John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton are so far the only Democrats who’ve talked much about an urban agenda. He said nothing about Obama.
Obama, for his part, could have begun to put a lot of this to rest today in Detroit — the perfect setting to deliver a fiery speech about urban issues and his vision for America’s cities.
Instead, Obama plans to talk about energy independence and its effect on the economy in this region, with a hook into the auto industry’s recent troubles. Not a bad topic, and certainly relevant to his audience.
Still, it’s a lost opportunity that Obama will need to reclaim before he’s the clear choice of urban voters.
STEPHEN HENDERSON is deputy editorial page editor of the Free Press. Contact him at 313-222-6659, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.