Did Kwame Kilpatrick Actually Help Detroit?

Disgraced and out of appeals, Detroit former mayor will still be sitting in a federal prison on New Year’s Day 2037. But could his corruption have, in an odd way, actually improved the city?


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Kwame Kilpatrick is now in a federal prison in El Reno, Okla., squat in the middle of that dusty state.

That, appropriately, is about as close to nowhere-ville as you can get. That’s where he belongs; that’s where he will remain.

When I last interviewed him at length for Hour Detroit magazine 14 years ago, Kwame was riding high, wearing what was looked like an expensively tailored modernized 1940s zoot suit, complete with a two-carat diamond in his ear. 

“I think this is a sexy administration,” he told me then, after denying any and all rumors of wild parties at the Manoogian Mansion. “We are sexy. People tell me it is because of the earring, the way I dress. People know me, they know me very well,” he said.

They know him even better now — and know better as well.

Today, Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate 44678-039 has been in custody for more than three years, for crimes including racketeering, extortion, bribery, and tax evasion. The ex-mayor will be in the slam until at least Aug. 1, 2037, the earliest he can possibly be released, if he gets time off for good behavior.

By then, he may be nearly as forgotten as Richard Reading, another corrupt Motor City mayor who was convicted in 1941 of illegally protecting the numbers racket back in Depression days. 

“This is the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Christ,” the long-dead Reading yelled as he was dragged away to the slam.

Reading got off with three years in the state pen; Kilpatrick will be a guest of Uncle Sam far longer.

Kilpatrick is finally, completely, effectively, over. Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court denied his latest spasmodic appeal. When he gets out, he’ll be as forgotten and irrelevant as William Henry Harrison.

Yet for now, his memory lives on. Play Password and say Kwame, and the odds are that the response will be corrupt.

The accepted, conventional wisdom is that Kilpatrick was nothing but a disaster for Detroit. Beyond any doubt, he did his best to make the city a national symbol of shame. His crime, his lying, his bad behavior, and hard-partying ways gave Detroit a bad name from coast to coast. While children went hungry, taxpayers paid for limousines that sometimes idled in the streets for hours while the mayor played. 

You could fill this entire magazine with nothing more than a recitation of his bad behavior, the details of which are drearily familiar. Suffice it to say that he was a technological pioneer in introducing many people to the wonders of text messages. Worst of all, his behavior served to give aid and comfort to white racists and Detroit bashers from coast to coast. 

Looking back nearly a decade later, I was seized with a powerful and completely heretical thought: 

Maybe Kwame Kilpatrick actually did Detroit a favor.

Accidentally, that is. As a public servant, Kilpatrick himself had virtually no redeeming qualities. He was a man-child who was like a Detroit version of one of the spoiled rotten Kennedy children.

When he was elected mayor at 31, he thought he’d been given the key to the candy store, and everything in it and all the girls who worked at the counter now belonged to him.

Yet Kwame Kilpatrick did not destroy Detroit.

Not alone, anyway. Bankruptcy and emergency management were probably inevitable even before he ever took office. Yes, he squandered millions — but the city had billions in debt and unfunded pension obligations that were hidden from view.

Days after Kilpatrick’s stunning re-election in 2005, when he defeated Freman Hendrix, a decent, competent, and honest man, I sat down with Joe Harris, who had just finished a decade as Detroit’s auditor general. I told Harris that I thought it was a shame that the financially responsible Hendrix had lost the mayoral election. His response shocked me.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The city is headed for emergency management,” and probably bankruptcy.

For years, he told me, the city had lived beyond its means, borrowing against the future. True, Kilpatrick had helped make disaster inevitable. Instead of grappling with a pension structure that was unsustainable, he perpetuated it.

Everyone remembers that Kilpatrick wasted $9 million of the taxpayers’ money on a court settlement designed to cover up his affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty. But that was chicken feed compared to the more legal and far less sexy damage he did.

Virtually unnoticed, his administration issued “pension obligation bonds” that added $1.4 billion to the city’s debt, and borrowed more from Wall Street. There was the infamous and disastrous “swaps deal” that cost the city billions. 

But Harris told me Dennis Archer’s administration didn’t want to make the tough and politically unpopular choices necessary either. “I spent 10 years giving them operational audits, information as to how they could reduce costs and run things more efficiently,” he told me. “They mostly didn’t use it. There’s a legacy of 40 years or more of financial obligations that no one wanted to deal with.”

A succession of mayors dealt with it, that is, by borrowing more money. Think of a giant snowball rolling down a hill.

Earlier this fall, I had a long talk with Hendrix, who served as deputy mayor under Archer, and who, after being expected to win, lost the mayor’s election in 2005. These days, semi-retired at 66, he represents the city largely behind the scenes on both the new Great Lakes Water Authority and the Regional Transit Authority.

Hendrix, a finance guy, knows the numbers. Could he have prevented bankruptcy if he had won?

“That’s a good question, and a hard one,” he told me. “I like to think what we were later forced to do we might have been able to do ourselves, voluntarily, and put the right programs in place.”

But he concedes it would have been very hard. That would have meant cutting pensions, workforce, and possibly services. He doesn’t dispute Harris’ contention about how dire the city’s finances were. Plus: “The mentality was entirely different from what it is now,” Hendrix said. During the Archer administration, he had to fight hard and made lasting enemies to just change the city from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension system. “Nobody was on our side!” he said. People had no clue what the city’s financial reality was, or what was coming.

Kilpatrick’s fall helped change that. Harris returned to public life briefly, serving as chief financial officer for the seven months Ken Cockrel Jr. served as mayor. But he was out after Dave Bing defeated Cockrel in 2009, and later went on to become emergency manager in Benton Harbor. Bing, he told me, continued the disastrous cycle of borrowing.

Nor was he able to work effectively with a City Council that became increasingly known for its own spells of bad and embarrassing behavior.

“You know, the expectations in this job are impossible,” Bing told me wearily after a year and a half on the job. What made it worse was that every so often, Kilpatrick, who was then in and out of jail and various trials, would pop up in Detroit. 

“I get a sinking feeling in my stomach every time he is in the news,” said Bing, the former basketball star who said some days he just looked forward to going home to curl up with a James Patterson novel. 

Not surprisingly, he declined to run again in 2013.

That March, Bing and the City Council effectively lost all power when Gov. Rick Snyder announced the state was taking over the city.

Kevyn Orr was soon named emergency manager, and a bankruptcy filing swiftly followed. 

Some luridly predicted civic unrest if the state took over the city, but nothing of that kind happened. Detroiters seemed to get that the system was broken. Older black residents, especially women, had long since lost all respect for Kilpatrick, and by that time, City Council was in no better repute.

The flamboyant Monica Conyers had been carted off to federal prison after being convicted of bribery in connection, appropriately enough, with a sludge-hauling contract. Charles Pugh, the limelight-seeking council president, soon fled town over allegations of improper sexual behavior with high school boys. 

Detroiters seemed deeply embarrassed.

When Mike Duggan announced he was moving to Detroit from Livonia to run for mayor, I thought at first that he was crazy. Sheila Cockrel, a longtime activist and council member, set me straight.

“They don’t care that he’s white. Detroiters would vote for anyone who could get the cops to come and get the streetlights on,” she told me the day the emergency manager was announced.

She was absolutely right. My secretary at Wayne State University was a proud 64-year-old black woman who had nothing but contempt for Kilpatrick.

Later that year, I asked her who she was voting for. “Duggan,” she told me flatly, adding, “We had it for 40 years and all we did was screw it up.” 

That is not, of course, true. Nor is it fair.

But Duggan’s solid victory and the way the bankruptcy played out does indicate that Detroiters have perhaps reached a degree of political maturity hard to imagine a decade ago. City workers, albeit reluctantly, accepted pension cuts to make bankruptcy work, a sacrifice unimaginable a decade before. 

In his office, in the place where Kilpatrick had a large and garish picture of his family, Duggan has a large photograph of Walter Reuther and Martin Luther King Jr. leading the Walk to Freedom march down Woodward Avenue on June 23, 1963.

The symbolism is clear: Blacks and whites working together.

Taking chances then and making hard decisions now. Today, most Detroiters seem to think the city is on the right path. The remaining problems are still immense: attracting jobs, fixing the schools.

But Detroit is finally solvent and again self-governing, its debts under control, the streetlights on, millennials streaming into Midtown.

And maybe, just maybe, all this happened as fast as it did because of a notoriously self-indulgent felon.

Thanks aren’t exactly in order. 

But it might be both ironic and amusing to think of Kilpatrick as the catalyst for the new Detroit. 

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