DETROIT — In A quest for backers to build a five-star downtown hotel, Detroit's new mayor Kwame Kilpatrick recently went to Dubai, on the Persian Gulf. There he got a taste of the challenge before him.
" 'Detroit?' " he recounts a Dubai businessman asking him. " 'Isn't it dangerous there?' And that was in the Middle East! We talked about the news media, then he backed off."
That small victory cleared the way for serious negotiations to begin on the kind of investment Mayor Kilpatrick had set his sights on.
It was vintage Kilpatrick bold, charming, direct, and determined to succeed. At 32, he's the youngest mayor of a major US city. In his first six months, he's taken on his job with all the vigor and some would say bravado expected of someone his age.
Indeed, he's made it clear he has big ideas, pledging to rev up Motor City's fortunes despite its status as one of the nation's most distressed cities.
And he's counting on his youth to help do it. He inspired Detroit's young people, who turned out in huge numbers to give him his victory. And he's riled up quite a few of the old, managing to unite against him the entire City Council.With his sparkling diamond earring and imposing football physique 6-ft., 4- in. and 300 pounds he looks more like a rap star than a civic leader. Comedian Chris Rock called him America's first hip-hop mayor.
"I think it says something on the surface that's humorous, but there's really a lot of substance in that statement," says Kilpatrick, sitting comfortably in the lobby of the once-all-white Detroit Yacht Club. "Finally, someone from the Run DMC generation from the '80's generation, has made it into some of the political circles that we don't look like we belong in."
While he may not look like he belongs behind the mayor's desk, Kilpatrick is certainly no stranger to politics. He says he knew when he was 9 that he wanted to be mayor and ran his first campaign at 13 for his mother's bid for re-election to the Michigan House. She's now Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick. His father Bernard Kilpatrick is a former county commissioner in Detroit. Both are close confidants to their son and he's quick to acknowledge the role "vertical connections" have played in his career.
After graduating from Florida A&M and Detroit Law School, he taught in a Detroit public school. But when he was 25, his mother decided to run for Congress, and Kilpatrick ran for her seat in the Michigan House of Representatives and won, largely on her name recognition. But he developed his own reputation as a consensus builder in Lansing, where he was the first African-American to lead a state party.
"Kwame never minced words, but he was never rude," says former state Rep. Sharon Gire. "When you're working with him on issues you never have to question where he is, or whether he'll change his mind if he gets more information."
That reputation helped in his run for Detroit mayor, although he was a long shot with only 20 percent name recognition. His age 30, and just out of braces didn't help either. But he turned his youth to his advantage, tapping young people's frustrations and hopes with his slogan "Our Future.... Right Here, Right Now." He also painted his opponent, City Council President Gil Hill, as a representative of a moribund status quo. With help from nationwide fundraising thanks to his parents' connections and pollsters who suggested he remove the diamond stud earring, Kilpatrick won 54 to 46 percent.
The day after his election in November, he put back the earring, and announced his ambitious agenda: "Kids, Cops, Clean." It aims to improve education and after-school services, overhaul the troubled police department, clean up littered streets, replace thousands of broken street lights, and tear down half the city's 10,000 abandoned homes. Some political analysts think Kilpatrick has already overreached, noting he's had to scale back some of his goals for lack of funding, like the number of tear downs. Then there's the city's notoriously inefficient workforce.
"The whole city administration is screwed up, the bureaucracy is completely corrupted and rotted and Kwame has inherited this," says political analyst Mark Grebner. "If [former Mayor] Dennis Archer, whom I greatly respect couldn't do it, I don't know if Kwame can." But other analysts contend Kilpatrick has something Archer didn't, a "grassroots " connection with Detroiters.
"I think it's because he's unabashedly young, the energy he has is infectious," says Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, a political analyst running for Michigan Secretary of State. "The seniors see him as their grandson, and then there's this core of young folks who've never connected with government before, and they see that one of their own is now the man in charge, earring and all."
Indeed, his approval rating is 75 percent, and he's constantly swarmed by young and old alike.
"He does have some growing to do, but he's receptive to listening and that's very good," says Lorraine Tucker who's lived in Detroit all her 64 years.
"I do feel things are a little better already," says Sylvester Gary, a young father who, like many in the middle-class, wants to stay in Detroit and turn it around.
Some political pundits caution that Kilpatrick's enthusiasm may have raised expectations that could be difficult to meet. The deft touch he demonstrated in Lansing hasn't translated well. Since he took office in January, a a tentative and polite relationship with the Detroit City Council has degenerated into open hostility. Council members have thwarted his agenda and openly attacked his youth and inexperience. And Kilpatrick has blasted them for trying to be "nine junior mayors."
"Kwame thinks the city council should do whatever he says," contends Maryann Mahaffey, council president. "But I grew up in an era when government was supposed to have checks and balances ... I'll continue to act on that."
In June, the council nixed a deal with the city's three casinos the mayor had spent months negotiating. They say he hadn't driven a hard enough bargain. But some observers argued it was just a case of bruised egos because they weren't included in the talks. Last week, a divided council approved a deal very much like the one Kilpatrick originally sought.
He's had other missteps. Early on the mayor alienated city political and labor elite by not returning phone calls and being persistently late a problem he's tried to remedy with staff changes.
Then there's what the Detroit News calls the administration's "apparent sloppiness." His office announced the creation of a police foundation with a high profile board to fundraise money for the beleaguered department. But no one had asked several members if they'd serve, including the chairmen of the Ford Motor Company and DTE energy company. Both men declined to take part.
People close to the mayor say the missteps are part of a learning process and that he's a quick study. For instance, on the casino deal, Kilpatrick's supporters say he wouldn't have run into problems if he'd included key council members in the negotiations.
"He's solid as a rock, it's just that he's learning with everything he does," says the mayor's uncle, Raymond Cheeks, who is the director of Detroit's Neighborhood City Halls. Mr. Cheeks' appointment raised accusations of nepotism and also raised concerns about Kilpatrick's judgment.
But many working people, like Ms. Tucker, are more concerned with what they see on the streets, which are cleaner, and in their neighborhoods, where people are becoming more involved since Kilpatrick took over.
"He's willing to step out of his comfort zone and look for something different for the city," says Tucker.
Youngest sitting big-city mayor: 32.
Education: Detroit public schools; Florida A&M University, degree in political science; Detroit College of Law, Juris Doctorate Degree
Family: Wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, stay-at-home mom; three sons twins age 6, and an 8-month-old.
Sport: Football lineman, captain of his college team.
Political roots: Mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D) of Michigan; father, Bernard Kilpatrick, former Wayne County Commissioner; first elected to the Michigan House in 1996, taking the seat vacated by his mother; first visited Detroit mayor's office at age 10 to interview Mayor Coleman Young for a school essay.
Latest CD Endorsement: "Stay Low, Keep Movin,'" by the Black Bottom Collective, a Detroit rap group.