Eyewitness to His-story

Eyewitness to His-story

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DETROIT (WJBK) -

I've been covering Kwame Kilpatrick since before he was first elected mayor in 2001 and, a decade later, it's amazing how little he's changed.

He is slimmer. Spending a year as an involuntary guest at the Gray Bar Hotel will do that to you.

And his political superstar has gone super nova. Pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and being indicted on dozens of corruption charges will have that effect.

But the classic Kilpatrick traits – charm, disarm, exaggerate, prevaricate, explain, complain – are all still in full effect.

At least that's my impression after spending two hours with Hizzoner at the Hotel St. Regis on Thursday night, where Kilpatrick held a Q&A with the members of the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

The first time Kilpatrick and I met at the St. Regis was on Sept. 11, 2001 – primary election day – when Kilpatrick's joy at becoming the front-runner in the Detroit mayoral race was tempered by the terrorist attacks on America.

The second time came shortly after he had become, at age 31, the youngest elected mayor in the city's history. He angered a group of businessmen eager to press the flesh with the new mayor who were left hanging when he skipped out because he was self-conscious about how much he was sweating.

("He's a sweater," one of his aides later told me, incredulous that anyone expected the mayor to make the scene when he was looking less than his best.)

This time, even though he just lost his bid to fire his lawyer and is less than a month away from the start of a federal trial that could send him to prison for most of the rest of his life, not a bead of sweat appeared on Kilpatrick's brow.

Many of us in attendance (I've been a member of DC-NABJ – one of the most dynamic journalism organizations in Detroit -- for more than a decade, but quite a few people signed up Thursday night just for the chance to engage the former mayor) wondered why he would subject himself to questioning. He has generally snubbed reporters since his fall from grace in the wake of the text message scandal Jim Schaefer and I revealed in the Detroit Free Press in 2008.

His reputation is in tatters. His city is reeling from the deficits he left behind. And anything he said could be used against him in a court of law.

If Kilpatrick had an agenda, he didn't make it plain. He agreed to a no-holds-barred exchange with reporters, with only one caveat: No video cameras.

He was concerned, he said, that his comments would be reduced to out-of-context sound bytes.

Of course, Kilpatrick had his own film crew there. They seemed to spend a fair amount of their time shooting video of the reporters, providing another reminder that, with Kilpatrick, there are often two sets of rules: His rules, and the ones everyone else has to abide by.  

To his credit, Kilpatrick responded to every question he was asked.

He took responsibility for the 2010 defeat of his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. He said she was one of the best lawmakers in Michigan history when it came to bringing money back from Washington. The facts don't support that claim, but Kilpatrick is almost certainly correct that his travails ended her political career.

"I may have given you all the rope," Kilpatrick said, referring to voters, "but you didn't have to exercise the right to hang my momma."

Lynching and other stark references to racial injustice have been staples of the Kilpatrick-Cheeks family's public comments since 2005, when voters began to signal their impatience with Kilpatrick's profligate use of city credit cards and petty cash for high living. The former mayor regularly says racism is one of the reasons he has been investigated and a federal grand jury indicted him on public corruption charges.

He said Thursday he can't get a fair trial in Detroit, in part because the region is so riled up against him.

"I'd be better off if you just hang me from that fist out there," he said, referring to the Joe Louis fist statue on Jefferson Avenue. "It's that type of witch trial."

But Kilpatrick's resilience was also on display, as he puzzled over why people keep asking him how he's preparing his family for the possibility that he will be convicted and sent to prison.

"It's pretty easy to prepare yourself when you lose … when you lose, you're prepared that day," he said, chuckling. "I'm preparing for the victory, I'm preparing to overcome, I'm preparing for the struggle."

"If there's a situation where you have to take a loss, there's going to be plenty of time for deep reflection."

His charm -- and duplicity -- were also present.

When one of my colleagues, who came to Detroit after Kilpatrick fled to Dallas, got her turn to ask a question, Kilpatrick said: "Alexis Wiley! Wow, you're new."

Then he described how she had just reported a story.

"I saw you today at the car door. ‘This is what happened when the lady hit the car.' That was interesting," he said. A minute later, he told Bisi Onile-Ere of WDIV-TV that he had seen her on TV, too.

Later, apparently oblivious to the contradiction, he said: "I don't watch the news."

True to form, his answers were often long and complicated, sometimes leaving the questioner wondering whether an answer was buried somewhere in all those wonky words.

When I asked him how much responsibility he took for the city's current financial crisis – pointing out that the seven budgets his administration authored ended in deficit, creating a large chunk of the debt burden plaguing his successors – he agreed that he bore some responsibility. But in his 6 minute and 22 second-long response he said it would have been virtually impossible to come up with a balanced budget because of all the "unforeseen costs," and urged future mayors to take to the airwaves to explain to people, including his grandfather, that they should, among other things, use generic drugs to reduce the city's costs.

He also glossed over his fall. He said, "I was cheating on my wife, and I lied about it. And I walked into a courtroom and held up my right hand and swore to tell the truth and did not." But he failed to mention that he used $8.4 million of city money to fund the deal he authorized to cover up the text messages that showed he committed perjury.

There were other interesting and contradictory moments:

  • Asked if Detroit is ready for a white mayor, he said the very question diminished minorities. Then he raised concerns about the trustworthiness of white people with a bizarre reference to a fellow prisoner. "I was in prison with some white people. Y'all don't want them to be mayor," he said. "Matter of fact, there was a guy next door to me. He was very handsome. He was blue eyes, blond hair. But he raped his 14-year-old step-daughter and he molested his 7 year-old-son." Later, he said long-time supporter and adviser Mike Duggan, a white man who runs the DMC hospital system, was worthy of consideration for mayor.
  • He said he prefers to spend nights at home watching rented movies with his family and can't stand to talk about politics, but delivered lengthy remarks on Detroit's current political landscape.
  • He said Detroit needs to get past him – "being stuck on Kwame Kilpatrick is to be stuck on eternal stagnation" – but events like his book signings and even Thursday's appearance keep him in the spotlight.
  • In stark contrast to his good humor and introspective moments, one of the last questioners, Ann Mullen of WXYZ-TV, got a taste of his temper when he responded to her assertion that he seemed to consider himself a victim: "You've been that person over at Channel 7. You actually look mean, too. You got to smile more. That little permanent scowl is horrible."  

Whether Thursday's event marks a return to the days when Kilpatrick eagerly engaged the local media remains to be seen. When I told him I looked forward to more free exchanges, he told the audience, "I don't know about free exchanges again … but it's good we're having this one."

Later, as he worked the crowd and posed for pictures, Schaefer's hand and my hand were among the many he shook on his way out of the ballroom.

After nearly two hours in Kilpatrick's presence, it was clear his plight hasn't diminished the power of his personality. I'm still not sure what he hoped to accomplish, but perhaps he achieved his goal with his opening remarks, which included an apology.

If so, I suspect his hope is that by apologizing to everyone stuck in the mess he left behind, they will now feel obligated to forgive him.

You can reach M.L. at ml.elrick@foxtv.com

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