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Published: Friday, 8/8/2008

House of Kilpatrick causing major headaches to Democrats

WASHINGTON - Less than two years ago, Detroit's Kilpatrick family was riding high. Congressman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick had just been re-elected without a single challenger in either the primary or general election.

Her son, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was the golden boy and the comeback kid of Detroit politics. Weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, at barely 31, he had become the city's youngest elected mayor. He had taken his mama's seat in the legislature when she went to Congress when he was 27 and barely out of law school.

The year before, the man who everyone calls "Kwame" had won a breathtaking, upset victory that gave him a second term in the Motor City's Manoogian Mansion. He had done so despite a long list of newspaper stories about his hard-partying lifestyle. There was talk of a run for governor. Maybe even higher.

What a difference a few months can make.

On Tuesday, Ms. Cheeks Kilpatrick barely survived a primary challenge, scraping through to a hollow victory with 39 percent of the vote, to 36 percent for Mary Waters, a little-known former state legislator. Martha Scott, an elderly former state senator, got the rest. Despite great media interest in the race, turnout was abysmal.

Fewer than one out of every five registered voters bothered to show up. The raw numbers: Ms. Kilpatrick 20,955; Ms. Waters 19,355, and Ms. Scott 13,380. The congressman's narrow victory is even more shocking when one considers that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made a rare trip to Detroit to campaign for her.

U.S. Representative Kilpatrick is also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, probably the main reason Ms. Pelosi, who needs caucus support on a variety of issues, made the trip.

The 63-year-old incumbent also outspent Ms. Waters, who is 52, by about $800,000 to $10,000; Ms. Scott appeared to spend even less than that. Still, it was clear from the pattern of the numbers that had the congressman faced only one opponent, her career would be history today.

The weakening of the house of Kilpatrick was underscored by a footnote: In an effort to continue the family tradition, one of her nephews ran for her old seat in the legislature, the seat her son, the future mayor, had inherited from her.

The voters crushed him like a bug. The congressman is, however, nearly certain to cruise to re-election in the fall; though she has a token GOP challenger this time - Edward Gubics - the seat is one of the most safely Democratic in the country.

However, the city is clearly no longer an unchallenged Kilpatrick family preserve. The family's fall from grace began early this year, when the Detroit Free Press revealed that text messages sent on city-owned pagers showed that the mayor, who is married and has three young sons, engaged in a long-term, torrid affair with Christine Beatty, his chief of staff, and that the two had discussed firing a deputy police chief who was investigating the mayor's conduct in office.

That took on meaning beyond the simply sordid because that they had both testified to the contrary during a trial last year in which three police officers sued the city for wrongful discharge. The cops were awarded an $8.4 million settlement that the mayor - once he learned of the text messages - quickly advised the council to pay.

Now the mayor has been charged by the Wayne County prosecutor with multiple felonies, including perjury and obstruction of justice, and yesterday he was sent to jail for violating his bond by traveling to Canada. Democrats are plainly worried that his continuation in office poses a real threat of guilt-by-unfair-association to the prospects of the first black presidential nominee in history, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

Many have begged the mayor to resign, but he has steadfastly refused. (A felony conviction would automatically remove him, but his trial won't start till long after the November election.) Now, both a narrow majority of Detroit City Council and a number of others have asked Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a fellow Democrat, to use her authority to remove him from office. She has indicated that she is thinking about it. Ms. Granholm is not someone who likes to make difficult decisions. But the congressional primary results may make that decision much less difficult. "When her term ends in 2011, she is going to need a job," one longtime Lansing watcher said.

"Do you think she is going to get a job in Washington if she didn't do all she could to deliver Michigan [to Mr. Obama] even if he wins in November?"

It is hard to imagine that the mayor has much peace of mind these days.

•

Curiouser and Curiouser: One of the mayor's few remaining stalwart supporters on city council is Barbara-Rose Collins. What's odd about that? Well, Ms. Collins used to be in Congress herself, till she was defeated in a 1996 primary by the mayor's mother, who has held the seat ever since. Ms. Collins' defeat is usually traced to her decision to hold a major fund-raiser in a strip club. Her newfound support for the mayor may stem from her friendship with Sharon McPhail, his general counsel.

Ms. McPhail herself once ran against Kwame Kilpatrick, whom she called a "thug" and accused of trying to electrocute her. That ended when he gave her a six-figure-salaried city job.



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