Detroit Politics Embroiled

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

David Finkel

DETROIT IS A city entangled in a chain of interlocking crises, all the way from the world economic crisis, to deindustrialization in America, down to the regional and local levels of the housing market hemorrhage and a tidal wave of utility cutoffs in poor people’s homes. Some 40,000 Detroiters now are without water — the most shocking example, perhaps, of daily life in a city on the brink.

The most important fight taking place in Detroit right now is the strike at American Axle, reported in this issue by Dianne Feeley. But the most widely publicized is undoubtedly the “series of unfortunate events” embroiling the administration of the once-popular “hip hop” Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. It has sharply divided the African-American political class, the clergy, and business forces — generally pitting those who benefit from the mayor’s clientelist-patronage practices, including quite a few white businessmen, against those who are shut out, and splitting local Democratic forces.

The point at which Kilpatrick’s corruption went outside the bounds of normal urban political cronyism was reached when he cost the city about $9 million in payouts to police officers he had fired as their investigation threatened to expose a now-notorious sexual relationship between the mayor and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty. Both Kilpatrick and Beatty face multiple felony charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and official misconduct for various acts that took place in the course of covering up their affair.

The 36th District Court judge assigned to the preliminary examination in the criminal case has political and social connections to the mayor, as do the other judges on that bench, leading to rounds of litigation and appeals on whether he and all of them should be recused — and so on it goes.

Seven of the nine City Council members voted for a resolution calling on the mayor to resign. The Council also voted not to hear his presentation of the annual budget. This followed a “state of the city” address in which Kilpatrick publicly insulted City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr., and shocked a live television audience by stating “I have never in my life been called n_____ as many times as I have in the last 30 days.”

Lurking behind the semi-comical aspects of the escalating scandal is a stalled, and possibly deliberately sabotaged, investigation of the murder of Tamara Greene, an exotic dancer who is said to have performed — and been violently assaulted — at a rumored (though officially denied) wild stag party at the mayoral mansion years ago. It is impossible at present to determine the validity of widespread suspicions that she was gunned down to cover up the incident.

Mayor Kilpatrick and his family (including his mother, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, D-MI) have close ties to the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the center of Detroit Democratic politics. Its leadership is spearheading the campaign to shield the mayor by claiming that the impetus for his removal is racist. Not only is the mayor’s substantial patronage machiner on the line, but the political prestige and clout of the Shrine.

All factions in the city’s politics were present at the Detroit NAACP’s annual Freedom Dinner, where over 10,000 people turned out to hear a brilliant address by Jeremiah Wright. The event was a remarkable affirmation of the community’s love for Wright and his message, yet factional tensions simmered: The mayor got precious face time by embracing Rev. Wright on the dais, but Wright in his speech made no mention of Kilpatrick.

There is no indication that either the political or legal tangle — which has pro- and anti-Kilpatrick factions battling it out in the African-American press, talk shows and competing rallies — will end anytime soon, possibly affecting attempts to mobilize Democratic voters in November.

ATC 134, May-June 2008