Can Detroit's Mayor Survive?

It wasn't exactly the full Jimmy Swaggart, but Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick emerged from a week of seclusion Wednesday night to atone for the sex scandal that has consumed him and mesmerized Motown. Like the disgraced minister, Kilpatrick spoke from his church, the Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ, but there was no congregation before him--just a lone television camera and his forlorn wife, Carlita, by his side. "I want to start out tonight by saying to the citizens of this great city, I'm sorry," Kilpatrick said in an address carried live on every Detroit TV station. He went on to apologize to friends, foes and family. He couldn't say exactly why he's sorry since he is being investigated for lying under oath about what looks to a lot of people like an affair he had with his ex-chief of staff, Christine Beatty, who resigned Monday. But after performing his act of contrition, Kilpatrick made it clear he isn't planning to follow Beatty's lead. "Make no mistake about it, since 2002, I have been in charge of the city," he said, staring intently into the camera. "I would never quit on you, ever."

But can Kwame survive this scandal? That isn't so clear. For starters, he and Beatty face a very real prospect of perjury charges. Last summer, in a whistleblowers' lawsuit by two fired Detroit cops, Kilpatrick and Beatty hotly denied they'd ever been lovers. Beatty rolled her eyes as the question was put to her; Kilpatrick became indignant. "My mother is a congresswoman," he said from the witness stand, referring to Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who represents much of Detroit in the U.S. House of Representatives. "There have always been strong women around me. I think it's absurd to assert that every woman that works with a man is a whore." But then last week, the Detroit Free Press published text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty that told another story. "Did you miss me, sexually?" Beatty texted the mayor in April 2003, while Kilpatrick was in Los Angeles. To which the mayor replied: "Hell yeah! You couldn't tell. I want some more. Don't sleep!"

In most states, to be charged with perjury you have to have lied about something that is directly relevant to the case. Not so in Michigan--one of only two states where you can be charged with perjury, a 15-year felony, for knowingly lying about anything while under oath. "In Michigan, it's pretty simple," says local attorney Mitch Ribitwer. "If you intentionally lie, that's it."

The mayor, who is a lawyer, might conceivably have known that. He certainly knew to steer clear of implicating himself in his speech. He never specifically mentioned the text messages, the affair or the $9 million settlement the city paid to the two police officers who won their lawsuit last summer. Instead, after asking the media to leave his family alone, Kilpatrick tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging a transgression without admitting a crime: "I am the mayor. I made the mistake. I am accountable. Because there are legal matters pending at this moment, unfortunately I am unable to discuss any of those issues at this time." (Sharon McPhail, Detroit's general counsel, contends there is not a strong enough case to charge the mayor with perjury.)

The most compelling testimony at Greater Emmanuel, though, came not from the mayor but from his wife. With more than a faint echo of Hillary Clinton sitting beside Bill all those years ago on "60 Minutes," Carlita Kilpatrick surprisingly spoke up for her husband. "Yes, I am angry, I am hurt, and I am disappointed," she said, with a pained expression on her face and her hand gripped firmly in her husband's. "But there is no question that I love my husband."

The reaction is this deeply divided city seems to split along racial lines. Many in the city, which is 80 percent African-American, appear ready to forgive and move on. But in the predominantly white suburbs, where Kilpatrick has a 90 percent unfavorable rating, many believe he should step down and spare this downtrodden city any further embarrassment. These opposing points of view took to the streets in front of city hall just hours before his speech Wednesday. Union-organized protesters called for Kilpatrick's ouster, with some wearing T shirts bearing the mayor's smiling face and the words JUST QUIT/I DID NOT TEXT WITH THAT WOMAN. They went toe to toe with a legion of mayoral supporters, who were resplendent in green and yellow varsity jackets bearing a large K to denote "Team Kilpatrick."

But the politics at work here are not as black and white as they might appear. Take the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, who opened an investigation last Friday into Textgate and is already subpoenaing city officials and local media outlets. It would be easy to suspect that the prosecutor, who is African-American, would back her mayor, who is also African-American. But that would be wrong. The two have often been at odds, and Worthy's constituency in Wayne County includes several affluent, predominantly white suburbs, including Grosse Pointe, home to the Fords and other old-money families. Facing re-election this year, Worthy can do more to help herself by prosecuting the mayor. "Politically, Kym Worthy is far more damaged if she doesn't bring charges," says Steve Mitchell, a former pollster for Kilpatrick. "There are more white suburban voters in Wayne County than African-American voters in Detroit."

Oddly enough, Kilpatrick called Worthy the day before the text story broke last week to inform her that he would not endorse a candidate in this year's race for prosecutor. Given past animosity between them, that could be seen as a boon to Worthy. (City officials say Kilpatrick made the call before he knew the Free Press was about to publish the text messages.)

Then there's the Detroit City Council, which is also predominantly black but frequently tussles with the mayor. By city charter, Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. is first in line to succeed the mayor if he steps down. Cockrel has remained quiet throughout this scandal and has not returned calls from NEWSWEEK. But he is widely expected to run for mayor against Kilpatrick in 2009. Of course, he'd get that job much quicker and easier if the mayor simply resigns. And once you have that job in Detroit, as Kilpatrick and his predecessors have proven, it is very hard to dislodge you.

Nearly two decades ago, Detroit's famously feisty mayor Coleman Young was contemplating a run for an unprecedented fifth term. But at 71 years old and with his administration rocked by scandals, many thought his time was up. Then a former city employee came forward to say her 6-year-old son was really Young's illegitimate love child (if fact, she'd named him Joel Loving). Initially, Young denied the kid was his, but paternity tests proved him wrong. It looked like this would finally be the end of Coleman Young. Instead, Detroit voters re-elected him in a landslide. "The episode proved that I was a hell of a lot more fit than many people might have thought," Young wrote in his autobiography, "Hard Stuff." "If they were going to call me Big Daddy, I might as well live up to the name."

Today, Joel Loving goes by the name of Coleman Young Jr. Make that state Rep. Coleman Young Jr. The late mayor's love child was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives last year from a field of 17 candidates. In Detroit, sex scandals have a way of taking unexpected twists. And political dynasties die hard. "Anyone who claims they know whether Kwame Kilpatrick with survive this," says Mitchell, "is either a fool or a liar."