DETROIT - Kwame Kilpatrick is not only the youngest and the biggest candidate for mayor Detroit has had in a long time, he is the only one who can proudly say that he has been after the job nearly all his life.
“I was in the fourth grade - 10 years old - when I wrote a report and said that I wanted someday to be mayor of the city of Detroit,” said Mr. Kilpatrick, a giant of a man with an infectious grin who, at 6 foot 4 inches and 285 pounds, literally towers over his opponents.
“Well, if that's the case, you should talk to the mayor,” said his mom, then a state representative. Next thing he knew, the boy was in the backyard of Detroit's Manoogian Mansion, talking politics with Mayor Coleman Young.
That was the shaping moment in Kwame's life. “Looking back on it, it seems like he talked to me for hours. It probably was five minutes. I remember he said the mayor had to stay focused, and take care of the people.”
He was hooked on politics for good. This year, at the ripe old age of 31, he hopes to make that dream a reality. And if that seems awfully young to be mayor of a major city with major-league problems, consider this: Mr. Kilpatrick is now minority leader of the Michigan House of Representatives, just four years after being elected to the legislature.
He has a law degree from Detroit College of Law, was an All-American offensive tackle and captain of the football team at Florida A&M, and if it hadn't been for the last play of his last game, was headed for the pros. “I ruptured two discs - L4 and L5. Otherwise I might be sitting on the other side of the table deciding who to fund in this race,” he said with a hearty laugh.
That's hard to believe, because Mr. Kilpatrick loves politics so - and is good at it. Both Republicans and Democrats have given him and his GOP counterpart, speaker of the House Rick Johnson, high marks for ushering in a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in state government, though ideologically they are about as different as they can be.
But can the young All-American bulldoze his way in to the mayor's office, which was suddenly opened up by the surprise decision of current mayor Dennis Archer not to run again? So far, he is an underdog; the favorite is City Council President Gil Hill.
The polls show the challenger has a good shot at surviving the Sept. 11 primary and making the two-man general election runoff. (Detroit city elections are nonpartisan, and the Republican Party is essentially nonexistent there.)
One recent survey shows Mr. Hill with 44 percent to 28 percent for Mr. Kilpatrick. Nicholas Hood, another city council member, trailed with 11 percent.
Those numbers don't bother Mr. Kilpatrick. “Our goal is to get into the runoff, and then to win,” he said. The contrasts between himself and his main opponent are sharp. Mr. Hill, at 69, is more than twice his age.
The older man is taciturn, soft-spoken, and was for many years a Detroit policeman best known for cameo roles as Eddie Murphy's boss in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. Mr. Hill has said he wants to keep his family out of the political limelight. Mr. Kilpatrick loves showing off his 5-year-old identical twins, Jelani and Jalil, and he and his wife Carlita are proudly expecting a third son right after the election.
Those in Kwame Kilpatrick's camp think if they can get their man into a televised debate with Gil Hill, the election will be theirs. Those in the Hill camp are counting on their get-out-the-vote operation to turn out senior citizens in large numbers.
Many in Detroit's political establishment are quietly or publicly supporting Mr. Hill, some because they have ambitions of their own, and it is widely thought he would be a one-term mayor unlikely to make major changes.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kilpatrick thinks that's shortsighted. “Detroit can't afford another transitional mayor. We have to start dealing with our problems now.
“I think people understand now it's not Detroit vs. the rest of the state. It is this region vs. the world. We aren't losing trade shows to Southfield. We are losing them to Tulsa. We have to figure out how to compete with the world, for business and citizens.”
“I think we can get something done now,” he said, referring to his connections in Lansing. A chief priority would be improved rapid transit and light rail, within the city and from city to suburb. “That's my bill I'm introducing in Lansing. Only 45 percent of the people that live here own cars. Seventy-five percent of the jobs are in the suburbs. That's a big hindrance to improving quality of life.”
Though many in the Archer administration are supporting his main rival, Kwame has raised more than $500,000, and does have his supporters, including Ed McNamara, Wayne County executive and Michigan's most powerful local political boss. Most of the city's legislative delegation is behind him, and he thinks he has the tacit support of one of Detroit's two congressmen, U.S. Rep. John Conyers. As for the city's other member of Congress, the candidate asserts confidently that “I can say that I have her in my pocket.”
Well, that only seems natural ... U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, after all, is his mother. Whether her son can become Detroit's youngest mayor in decades remains to be seen, but no matter what, he seems likely to have a bright political future.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.
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