How the Detroit Mayor's Fall Hurts Obama

Long before sex, lies and texting caused Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to plead guilty to two felonies and resign on Thursday, he and Barack Obama shared a warm man-hug before a huge Motown crowd. It came 16 months ago, as Obama was launching his campaign for president with a scalding speech to the Detroit Economic Club upbraiding Detroit's automakers for not building more fuel-efficient cars. But while that speech gave Obama green street-cred, his praise of Kilpatrick as a "great mayor" who will do "astounding things for many years to come" backfired. As Kilpatrick now heads to jail for four months, for obstruction of justice, two attack ads have already appeared on the Web replaying Obama's Kwame moment. One, produced by the conservative Freedom's Defense Fund and soon going into heavy rotation on Detroit TV stations, shows Kilpatrick's mug shot, as the 10 felonies he faced scroll down the screen while Obama says, "I'm grateful to call him a friend." The ad ends ominously with the line: "You should know who Obama's friends are."

Even with Kwame Kilpatrick in the slammer, Barack Obama will be dogged by the scandal that brought down Detroit's mayor. For starters, Kilpatrick won't be around to lead the get-out-the-vote effort in dependably Democratic Detroit, which could be decisive in the toss-up state of Michigan, where Obama clings to a slim lead over John McCain. But beyond the mechanical breakdown, Kilpatrick's salacious, headline-commandeering controversy has inflamed the racial tensions that have riven this region. Detroit is 81 percent black and the poorest city in America, according to new census data, while the surrounding suburbs are 81 percent white and include some of the most affluent enclaves in the country. Ever since the riots of 1967, Detroiters have divided themselves along racial lines, and politicians on both sides of the city's cultural fault line—the 8 Mile Road made famous by Eminem—have stoked racial fears to get elected. "This Kwame Kilpatrick mess has splattered over onto the Obama campaign at the worst possible time," says veteran Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle. "Kilpatrick's brand of leadership has fed into the worst stereotypes that white voters have about black leaders."

That could explain why Obama has worked so hard lately to stiff-arm the mayor he once embraced. First, he asked him to stay away from the Democratic National Convention—which was no problem, since the mayor was wearing an electronic tether at the time and had been ordered by a judge not to travel beyond metropolitan Detroit. Then on Wednesday evening, a few hours after the prosecutor announced Kilpatrick was copping a plea, Obama issued a statement saying, "It is time for the mayor to step aside so that the city can move forward."

The next morning, Kilpatrick, 38, stepped before a judge and admitted: "I lied under oath" in a whistleblower trial last summer, where he hotly denied he had an affair with his then chief of staff, Christine Beatty. Steamy text messages from Beatty's city-issued pager, first published in the Detroit Free Press in January, contradicted that testimony and led to charges against both. (Beatty is also being offered a deal by the prosecutor, but hasn't indicated whether she will accept yet). To end his eight-month sex saga, the mayor agreed to cop to two counts of obstruction of justice in a deal that cost him his job, his law license, $1 million in restitution, his pension, his liberty for 120 days and the ability to run for office for the next five years while he is on probation. Kilpatrick also pleaded no contest to charges that he assaulted a police officer, who was trying to serve a subpoena on a friend of the mayor.

The Obama camp followed up with another statement that echoed what they'd said the night before: "The serious charges against the mayor were a distraction the city could not afford and his immediate resignation is the only way for the city to move forward." McCain, who will be campaigning in suburban Detroit Friday, remained silent.

Obama's attempts to distance himself might help, but he risks siding with the forces that some Detroiters see as enemies out to disenfranchise them. After all, Kilpatrick only agreed to his plea deal after Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm began historic hearings Wednesday to consider forcibly removing him from office. It's no coincidence that on the day before Granholm's hearing, a graffiti artist scribbled this on the limestone walls of Detroit's city hall: "The white man wants Kwame gone to take the rest of Detroit's money." Among the Kilpatrick die-hards in Detroit—still a significant minority—Obama could be viewed as a traitor. "People are upset he waited until the last minute and then piled on," says political consultant and Kilpatrick supporter Adolph Mongo.

To comfortably keep Michigan Blue, as it has been since 1992, Mongo contends Obama needs a near-record turnout in the city of Detroit, on the order of 60 percent of the registered voters. By comparison, when John Kerry took Michigan by 3 points in 2004, just more than 40 percent of Detroit's registered voters showed up at the polls. Without Kilpatrick around to oil Detroit's political machine, getting out the vote will be difficult, says Mongo. And campaigning with Granholm won't help. "The governor can't come in here and get anybody to vote for Obama," says Mongo. "She's the 800-pound gorilla that made this resignation possible."

To the rest of Michigan, where Kilpatrick had a 2 percent approval rating, that makes Granholm a hero. And that seems to be the political calculus that Obama is banking on to win him votes in the mostly white swing suburbs surrounding Detroit. "Michigan voters know that Mayor Kilpatrick's troubles are his own," Obama spokesman Brent Colburn told NEWSWEEK, "and that Barack Obama is focused on bringing people together to solve the serious challenges we face."

But when it comes to race, Michigan's Democrats have proven fickle. In 2006, even as it re-elected Democrats Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal outlawing affirmative action. The move was a surprise since polls leading up to Election Day predicted the proposal would fail and affirmative action would carry the day. But Michigan voters showed an unwillingness to give minorities an edge in college admissions or landing government jobs—an ominous sign for Obama. Since then, Kilpatrick has stoked racial tension, accusing his critics of having a "lynch-mob mentality" and invoking the N-word in a defiant state of the city speech. "Race is the elephant in the room," says Steve Mitchell, the mayor's former pollster. "Because the mayor is African American, it has fueled some real racist thoughts in people."

Colburn contends that Obama is building grassroots support throughout Michigan thanks to his background as a community organizer (the job much ridiculed by GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin Wednesday night). Already, Obama has 30 field offices in Michigan—10 more than John Kerry had at this time four years ago. And when Obama opened up his Detroit field-office this summer, Colburn claims the campaign signed up 1,300 volunteers. "We're confident the structure that we're building will get out the vote," he said.

But before this summer, Obama went nearly a year without setting foot in Michigan. He took his name off the ballot and stayed away during Michigan's controversial January primary, conducted in defiance of Democrat Party rules. "There's a grassroots gap between the Obama campaign and Michigan," says Riddle. "Without the Michigan primary, they haven't had a dress rehearsal on getting out the vote."

They'd better hope it goes better than Obama's Labor Day speech in Detroit. It was billed as the restoration of a tradition where the likes of Truman and Kennedy kicked off their fall campaign with a rousing speech at Detroit's huge Labor Day parade. But some in the overflow crowd in Detroit's Hart Plaza left disappointed. In deference to Hurricane Gustav, Obama cut short his remarks and called for unity in the face of nature's fury. "What he did was make thousands of people stand in line for a five-minute speech," truck driver Phil Robinson groused to The Free Press. "It was a missed opportunity." What wasn't missed: Kwame Kilpatrick, who reportedly spent his Labor Day at a private picnic. Now with the Detroit's radioactive mayor out of the way for good, Obama has a chance to finally put his Motown man-hug behind him.