Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick squares off with Sen. Barack Obama


Obama, Kilpatrick off to a rough start


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

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.


~ by Keith A. Owens on May 10, 2007.

11 Responses to “Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick squares off with Sen. Barack Obama”

  1. Interesting, this is business and these guys need each other,They both represent aspects of black life. There are some blacks that would not be comfortable with their own people but Barack is not one.

  2. Hey, JD.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one. Whatever beefs they may have, they need to get in a closet and work it out, then come out all smiles and get with the program. We can’t afford two brothers like this keeping each other at arm’s length.

  3. Hi Keith,
    I’m so glad Obama is in this race. He may not be directly tackling issues of race and those issues that directly affect Blacks, yet, he’s got to be positioned to be able to address those issues. In other words, let him get to the White House first! He’ll be in a better position then to tackle these issues.

    I think Obama knows exactly what he needs to do to place himself there. While some might think this is “selling out,” I don’t believe that at all. If folks know a bit more about his background, then they’ll understand how he can have broad-base appeal, which will help him and us in the long run. I usually don’t do political commentary, but my own 2 cents.

  4. Hey KWiz,

    I must admit I’m glad he’s in the race too, although I confess I still wish he had more experience. But as for how he’s handling the issue of race in the campaign I’d have to agree that he’s handling it carefully as he should. If he plans to be a realist about running for the nation’s highest office as a black man, there are some issues he’s going to have to handle delicately, and race is definitely one of those issues.

    But he’s obviously a very sharp individual, and I definitely prefer him to Hillary.

  5. I personally think Hillary is a phony. She’s doing what she can to cow-tow to people of color, yet, she’s so transparent it’s not funny. Again, I don’t do much political commentary, but I really hope Obama continues in this process and grows in this process so that we might have a viable, sincere candidate. Then again, I think John Edwards is a sleeper.

  6. KWiz,

    I don’t know that Hillary is so much a phony as she is a complete politician just like her husband, which in a way amounts to the same thing. She has worn so many faces to so many crowds in so many places over the years that she’s forgotten what her face actually looks like. She’s on autopilot. So was her husband, but she’s not as good at making it look normal.


  8. If you are still a bigot today you don’t need to vote. If you think this country need a good religious candidate, you don’t need to vote. If you want to keep your six figure salary you need to vote for John McCain. If you don’t want to loose your home, job, pension, social security, or children to the military because they had to enlist since they need to earn a living or want an education vote for Barack Obama.

  9. […] Obama and Kilpatrick were never really that tight and they were mutually suspicious of one another. Besides being high-profile black Democrats, what’s the […]

  10. […] ignored Barack Obama’s hearty endorsement of him until mid-2007. A YouTube video from a May 2007 speech at the Detroit Economic Club shows Obama thanking Kilpatrick for “doing an outstanding job of […]

  11. […] of him during the early stages of his 2008 presidential campaign. A YouTube video from a May 2007 speech at the Detroit Economic Club shows Obama thanking Kilpatrick for "doing an outstanding job of […]

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