IT could be an item on a David Letterman Top Ten List of "How to
Know Your Mayor is Headed for a Major Scandal" - he's known as the
That's what they call Detroit Mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick, now famous for text messages detailing the affair he had
with his chief of staff. Kilpatrick had denied the relationship under
oath in a lawsuit brought by two police officers Kilpatrick allegedly
fired to cover up his personal misconduct. He has been indicted on
eight felony counts including perjury and obstruction of justice.
This would just be another dreary entry in the long annals of
misbehaving politicians if it weren't for the backdrop of a decaying
city. Elected at age 31 in 2002, Kilpatrick was supposed to bring
youthful vitality to his job, and he talked about reform. Now, he's
just another tragedy to befall Detroit, a city whose decline is - as
psychologists put it - overdetermined, but stands as a stark statement
of the failure of urban liberalism.
Detroit suffers from every
possible malady except a plague of locusts, and that's only because
they find urban living uncongenial. The city has a revitalized
downtown, but all around it, the city rots. Forbes magazine declared
Detroit "America's Most Miserable City," on the basis of its
unemployment and crime rates, among other things. The unemployment rate
of 8.2 percent is the highest of any major urban area in the nation,
and its homicide rate is higher than New York's in the bad old days of
the early 1990s.
The city has lost 1 million residents since
1950. It was hit by the decline of the auto industry and white flight,
fueled partly by racism. These trends would have rocked the city no
matter what. Detroit compounded them with disastrous governance,
personified by Mayor Coleman Young, who held office for 20 years
beginning in 1974.
His record raises the question why, if it wanted to engage in a
nefarious plot to hurt blacks, the federal government would invent the
AIDS virus when it could simply emplace mayors like Coleman Young
instead. "Imagine a Rev. Jeremiah Wright with real power," says urban
expert Fred Siegel.
Coleman taunted suburbanites, accusing
them of "pillaging the city," while his scandal-plagued administration
managed the city into the ground.
He neglected policing,
maintaining that "crime is a problem, but not the problem. The police
are the major threat . . . to the minority community." The 1968 riots
never really ended in Detroit, dragging on in a long crime wave. With
government services terrible to nonexistent and both crime and tax
rates high, there was no reason for anyone to stay.
Detroit mayors have been the best economic-development officers Oakland
County ever had," comments Michael LaFaive of the Michigan-based
Mackinac Center for Public Policy, referring to the county to Detroit's
Public-sector unions protect the dismal status quo.
Detroit high schools graduate just a third of their students, according
to an estimate by Michigan State University. But when a philanthropist
offered to spend $200 million to create 15 new charter high schools,
teachers staged a walk-out. Mayor Kilpatrick spurned the offer. These
failing schools throw kids with no skills into a struggling economy in
an environment characterized by social breakdown.
what Mayor Kilpatrick did with his chief of staff or how many lies he
has told, this is the true scandal of Detroit - and too many American
In the wake of the controversy over Rev. Wright,
Barack Obama called for a national conversation on race. But we talk
about race incessantly already, and Mayor Kilpatrick will carry on his
own dialogue by playing on black fears with charges of "selective
What would better serve the interests of
African-Americans and the country is a national conversation about good
urban governance - how to crack down on crime, reform the schools and
free the economy from sclerotic government. Detroit awaits it, as its
disgraced mayor twists in the wind.