Thursday, September 4, 2008

Meteoric rise ends in dramatic crash for Kilpatrick

His reputation in tatters, Kwame Kilpatrick leaves the mayor's office with an uncertain future and an inescapable legacy.

The man who came into power as the youngest mayor in Detroit history leaves his 11th-floor office as the city's only sitting chief executive convicted of a felony. In one day, he goes from being the most powerful man in the city to not having a bed of his own in Detroit -- he and his wife sold their home when they moved into the Manoogian Mansion.

Kilpatrick's meteoric rise, and even more dramatic crash, is a story of hope and hubris, of a man whose potential was matched only by his flaws.

"He's very bright and very charismatic," said Timothy Bledsoe, a Wayne State University professor of political science and a Democratic candidate for the Michigan 1st District House seat. "But at some point, he wasn't able to restrain his use of power. It's like the old saying: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Kwame Kilpatrick was born to be a politician. His father was chief of staff to Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, and his mother was a state representative. He graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1988. There, he became friends with Christine Rowland, later known by her married name Christine Beatty, a woman who would later figure prominently in establishing Kilpatrick's political career, and later, destroying it.

He was a star football player, and earned a scholarship to play at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. While there, he met and married his wife, Carlita.

Kilpatrick returned to Detroit, where he became a popular elementary school teacher at Marcus Garvey Academy, forming the school's first basketball team and Boy Scout troop. When his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, ran for Congress, Kilpatrick ran for her state House seat. He was a state legislator at 25, and the first African-American leader of the Democratic Caucus at age 29.

"He was a rock star," recalled Kelly Rossman, CEO of the Lansing-based Rossman Group public relations firm, who worked with Kilpatrick during his tenure in the Capitol. "He had this presence about him -- he was larger than life."

In 2001, nine years out of college, Kilpatrick stood on stage on election night as the newly elected mayor, sporting a brilliant smile and a hole in his ear lobe where a diamond stud once rested.

The 31-year-old was suddenly in charge of a nearly $3 billion budget, overseeing a city work force of 15,000 people.

The former college football player was bigger than life from the moment he entered the mayor's office in 2002, carrying the hopes of a wounded city on his shoulders. National magazines wrote glowing profiles. Comedian Chris Rock based a movie character on Kilpatrick.

"I went with (Kilpatrick) into a neighborhood on a project early in his first term (as mayor)," Rossman said. "It was like Jesus walking down the street -- people were rushing out of their homes to touch him. I've worked with politicians all my adult life and I'd never seen anything like it."

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson recalled "feeling like a Lilliputian" when he sat in meetings with Kilpatrick. "He brought that kind of image to the city, that they had a guy who was big enough for the job, physically and intellectually. He was very quick on his feet and a great communicator."

Detroit's downtown enjoyed a renaissance under Kilpatrick's leadership. Compuware completed its move downtown (a move begun under the Archer administration); Campus Martius, the center-city park complete with an ice rink, opened; Detroit hosted the Super Bowl and a baseball All-Star game. Kilpatrick renegotiated deals to build three permanent casinos in the city.

The riverfront opened with a 2.5-mile Riverwalk that eventually will span five miles. Two venerable, closed hotels, the Book Cadillac and the Fort-Shelby, are under reconstruction with plans to open in the near future.

But Kilpatrick's success was always overshadowed by his scandals.

Rumors of a wild party at the Manoogian Mansion involving a stripper in 2002 persist six years later, not because there's evidence, but because the rumor fits with the partying persona of the "hip hop mayor." Kilpatrick spent over $200,000 on city credit cards on out-of-town travel, buying lavish meals and partying at nightclubs.

His wife drove a city-leased Lincoln Navigator, costing Detroit $25,000 at a time when her husband was laying off police officers.

Many wrote his political obituary after he finished second in the city's mayoral primary in 2005, garnering only 34 percent of the vote compared to 45 percent for Freman Hendrix. Kilpatrick came back to beat Hendrix in the general election, even after exit polling showed him losing.

Kilpatrick has always worn his foibles on his cuff-linked sleeve, but his personal charm makes voters forgive and forget, said state Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit. "The current mayor has exceptional personal gifts. He's intellectually a brilliant person. He's very politically savvy and shrewd. He's charismatic. He can genuinely connect with people."

The more scandals he survived, the more an air of infallibility grew around the Detroit mayor. His staff, made up of childhood friends and relatives, wore "Team Kilpatrick" jackets. Kilpatrick began referring to himself in the third person.

"People in high-profile positions have to believe what they are doing is innately right," said Renana Brooks, a Washington, D.C., psychologist who specializes in counseling politicians and their families during crises. "The problem is when you do that, it becomes increasingly difficult to have any sense of moral center."

In 2002 and 2003, Kilpatrick apparently had an affair with his chief of staff and high school buddy, Christine Beatty. Their liaisons were chronicled in sometimes flirty, sometimes obscene text messages on their city-issued pagers. Those messages were revealed in January 2008, and appeared to contradict the testimony of Beatty and Kilpatrick when they denied having an affair in a 2007 whistle-blower civil suit.

Under siege but undaunted, Kilpatrick vowed to remain in office -- an attitude that had served him well in past scandals.

But the scandal became a cancer on the administration, enveloping the city law department and paralyzing the City Council. Kilpatrick and Beatty were charged with multiple counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in March. As many as 15 lawyers worked at various times to keep the text messages secret or keep the mayor out of jail.

Kilpatrick spent a night in the Wayne County Jail in August after he violated the terms of his bond by visiting Windsor. When he got out, Kilpatrick was immediately charged with two more felonies for a shoving incident in late July involving a sheriff's deputy trying to serve a subpoena on his friend, Bobby Ferguson.

The dam had burst. Business and church leaders who up till then had remained supportive of Kilpatrick began calling for his resignation. Gov. Jennifer Granholm accelerated a timetable for ouster hearings that began Wednesday and ended with his resignation Thursday. IRS documents indicated Kilpatrick spent money on lawyers nearly as quickly as he raised it.

The media-savvy mayor had lost control of his own life story. The man who billed himself as a new kind of leader became known as the man with an electronic tether over his black dress socks.

For political scientist Bledsoe, Kilpatrick's story is a metaphor for the city's own problems. "You have this fa├žade of a pretty vibrant downtown, but then you go into the neighborhoods and you have abandoned homes," Bledsoe said. "Here you had a man with great charisma, who had these faults. Charisma can only take you so far in a city so desperate for leadership."

Stripped of his law license, removed from the political post he once claimed "he was on assignment from God" to hold, Kilpatrick faces an uncertain future.

Despite the tragic turn of events, Rossman believes Kilpatrick has plenty of time -- and ambition -- to redeem his reputation. "He still has half his work life ahead of him," Rossman said of the 38-year-old Kilpatrick."He can still do some amazing things in his life if he learns from this -- maybe not in politics, but he could run a nonprofit or he could teach."

Patterson is less hopeful. Kilpatrick had it all and threw it away.

"He'll be a footnote in history," Patterson said, "but not in the way he intended."