Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s polarizing legacy lingers 10 years after conviction

Neither the life of the once-rising political star nor the attitudes of Detroit residents who elected him would ever be the same.

Kwame Kilpatrick

Detroit is marking the 10th anniversary of one of the most difficult periods in the city’s political history.

On March 11, 2013, a federal jury convicted former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on 24 counts, including bribery and racketeering. The life of the once-rising political star — and the attitudes of the residents who elected him — would never be the same after that.

‘We’ve never been here before’

It was 2008, during what became his final State of the City address, and then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was under fire.

His salacious text messages to a mistress, who also happened to be his Chief of Staff, had become daily fodder for news outlets. His family was besieged by what Kilpatrick called a white, racist media.

And the mayor was ready to go on the attack.

“We’ve never been in a situation like this before where you can say anything, do anything, have no facts, no research, no nothing. And you can launch a hate-driven, bigoted assault on a family,” he told the television audience.

It was a far cry from a half-dozen years earlier when Kilpatrick took office as the youngest mayor ever elected in Detroit. His personal charm, calls to “Rise up!” and self-anointing as America’s “first hip-hop mayor” became the symbol of a new day dawning to many in the city’s majority-Black population.

“Oftentimes when you’re 32 years old — I was asked not to say this but I am — when you’re 32 years old with an earring in your ear some people believe anything is possible.” — Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick

Kilpatrick lived as large as his six-and-a-half-foot frame, wearing flashy suits, an earring and traveling with a massive entourage. From the start, the former college football offensive lineman and heir to a family steeped in politics polarized Metro Detroiters.

Kilpatrick acknowledged at the time he attracted both ardent admirers and consistent critics.

“Oftentimes when you’re 32 years old — I was asked not to say this but I am — when you’re 32 years old with an earring in your ear some people believe anything is possible,” Kilpatrick said.

Just over a year into his first term, rumors circulated inside Detroit’s City Hall of a wild party at the mayor’s official mansion where a dancer may have been killed.

No concrete evidence surfaced of any party having been held, despite several investigations and a civil suit connected to the alleged incident.

Yet Kilpatrick still held a televised news conference from the mansion to refute a story many in Detroit had not even heard yet.

“I want people to understand that I would never disrespect my God, my wife or my children or my home or the citizens of the city of Detroit with this nonsense like a rumor at a party. It never happened, it never happened, it never happened,” he said.

‘Don’t let ‘em talk about y’all’s boy’

Kilpatrick won a second term in 2005.

On election night, he received a late blast of votes from a neighborhood area that only months before had supported his opponent during the primary election.

He trailed through much of the evening. But then, standing at his campaign headquarters and pointing to overhead TV monitors, Kilpatrick told the crowd, “They’ve just begun to count the street vote. Watch God work!”

The late shift in votes capped a campaign where Kilpatrick faced several allegations, including reports that he’d used taxpayer funds to lease a luxury Lincoln Navigator for his wife.

His mother, then-Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, argued the media was out to get Detroit’s native son.

“Turn off that television y’all! Turn off that radio,” she screamed over a roaring crowd of her son’s supporters. “Don’t let nobody talk about y’alls boy!”

A plea deal leads to resignation

But soon it was prosecutors talking about the newly reelected mayor.

The city reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with two former Detroit police officers who had investigated potential wrongdoing by the mayor and his staff. Kilpatrick testified during the proceedings that led to the settlement, and by early 2008, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy charged Kilpatrick with perjury.

Public support began to decline for the charismatic mayor.

Then-Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrell, Jr., who was next in the line of succession if a mayor resigned, said it was time for Kilpatrick to consider the possibility of stepping down.

“When I call back to my office and talk to them about the volume of calls that we’ve gotten from citizens saying that he ought to step down — I guess all I can say is that if I was in his shoes, it’s probably what I would do,” Cockrell said at the time.

A few months later, Kilpatrick cut a plea deal, agreeing to resign in exchange for 120 days in jail and paying roughly $1 million in restitution.

A somber Kilpatrick made it official in court.

“I lied under oath in the case of Gary Brown and Harold Nelthrope versus the city of Detroit. I did so with an intent to mislead the court and the jury and to impede and obstruct the fair administration of justice,” Kilpatrick admitted.

In a later televised farewell speech, Kilpatrick said the city had actually “set me up for a comeback.”

Running City Hall ‘like a criminal enterprise’

That comeback wouldn’t come to fruition as Kilpatrick’s legal woes began to snowball.

Two years after the plea, a judge ruled Kilpatrick had violated his probation and sentenced him to 14 months in jail. Then, the federal government significantly upped the ante.

Prosecutors accused the ex-mayor of steering city contracts to a friend while in office and took kickback payments.

For his part, Kilpatrick, who was out of jail and sporting the conservative fashion sense of a schoolteacher, was proclaiming his innocence at a 2012 meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists.

“Many people in Detroit say Kwame stole money,” he chuckled ruefully. “I have never stole a damn dime in my life from anybody. And I’m not even charged with that, oddly. That just became kind of like community folklore. Because if you hear every day somebody’s a criminal, crook, thug, you just kind of go with it.”

A federal jury found otherwise.

After a lengthy trial, jurors convicted Kilpatrick on 24 counts, including extortion and wire fraud. They also found him guilty of racketeering, the kind of charge prosecutors typically reserve for organized crime figures.

The U.S. Attorney covering Detroit at the time, Barbara McQuade, said at a news conference following the conviction that Kilpatrick ran the city of Detroit like a criminal enterprise.

“One juror said that she is a Detroiter and voted for Kwame Kilpatrick for mayor twice herself, but that the evidence that she saw in this case made her stomach turn,” McQuade shared.

Fallout and forgiveness

Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison, an unusually harsh penalty for his crimes. The fallout echoed far beyond his cell block.

As Detroit hurtled toward bankruptcy, then-emergency manager Kevyn Orr cited the case as an example of why Detroit’s own officials could not be trusted to run the city’s financial matters.

“Your past prior mayor is going to do a significant amount of federal time,” Orr said. “Any city that has this level of investigations and corruption in recent years, certainly that raises questions as to whether or not they had a firm hand on the tiller.”

Kilpatrick unsuccessfully appealed his sentence from his prison cell.

And Detroit moved on.

That is until, on his final day in office, former President Donald Trump commuted Kilpatrick’s sentence.

“I’ve asked for forgiveness from this city and it’s been accepted, the people who are willing to accept. There are some people, you know, that’ll never accept. But in this town I believe they have.” — Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick

During an appearance on NBC’s Today Show last April, Kilpatrick stated he was a changed man after spending over six years in prison. However, Kilpatrick maintained he was innocent of racketeering.

“I did the perjury, you know. But all of this mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracies? Absolutely not,” said Kilpatrick.

In recent weeks, a judge cited Kilpatrick’s Today Show interview as a reason to deny his request to end his supervised release, ruling the former mayor still refused to take responsibility for his crimes and had barely paid any of his court-ordered restitution.

Kilpatrick counters that he paid a spiritual restitution while behind bars and found a calling to proclaim the word of God through an online ministry.

The 52-year-old also claimed in the Today Show interview that he’s still a prisoner of God.

“I’m still serving a 28-year sentence. I just feel like I have a different warden in a different place,” Kilpatrick said. “I’ve asked for forgiveness from this city and it’s been accepted, the people who are willing to accept. There are some people, you know, that’ll never accept. But in this town I believe they have.”

That includes some people standing outside Detroit’s Coleman Young Municipal Center on a recent day. The building is the home of the mayor’s office Kilpatrick once occupied.

Detroit resident Byron Clark says he voted for Kilpatrick in hopes he would have turned out like previous Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, the namesake of Detroit’s municipal building. Clark is thankful former President Donald Trump set Kilpatrick free.

“The mayor didn’t kill nobody. He was trying to get some money, you know what I’m saying? That still does not make it right. But everybody deserve another chance,” Clark said.

Nearby, another man rushing to catch a Detroit bus overhears Clark and the subject of Kilpatrick is enough to make him stop and share his opinion.

“Only place he could go and still play his tricks and games and stuff is to go into religious and hide behind the church,” the man countered. “He know the churches can’t be taxed. So he found himself a little safe place to keep from paying that money.”

With that, the man vanishes into a city bus.

The exchange between the two men is a testament to the division Kilpatrick creates even today. Beloved or reviled, the former mayor left his imprint on Detroit.

It’s a city Kilpatrick once said God told him it was his destiny to govern.

It’s a city that became the site of the ashes of his political dream.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.