How Kwame Kilpatrick Went Bad

From a rising star alongside Barack Obama to the clink. Jay Scott Smith reports.

On one fateful night in Boston, two dynamic speakers made waves at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Both men, young, black, and products of hardscrabble Midwestern cities, were considered rising stars and were getting major exposure on one of the country’s biggest stages. One of those men was a state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. The other was the charismatic first-term mayor of Detroit: Kwame Kilpatrick.

To say that the fortunes of those two men have gone in opposite directions is an understatement. Obama’s DNC speech, which followed Kilpatrick’s that night, helped propel him to national stardom, a seat in the U.S. Senate, and eventually the presidency. On the other hand, Kilpatrick, who narrowly won re-election in 2005 before a sex scandal and perjury conviction cost him the job in September 2008, was convicted on 24 counts including federal racketeering, extortion, mail fraud, and tax evasion on Monday. He was later sent to prison to await sentencing. He is one of 35 former city employees, including other elected officials, to be convicted by the federal government in the past eight years.

“[The jury] said that they recognized that they were the voice of this community,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. “They recognized that this was not a victimless crime. They saw it as their responsibility to hold these men accountable for their conduct.” Kilpatrick’s lawyers say they are considering an appeal.

Kilpatrick often said that he was anointed by God to run the city, and dubbed himself “America’s hip hop mayor.” But the prosecution held that he used taxpayer money, bribes, and donations to his nonprofit Kilpatrick Civic Fund to pay for everything from trips to cars to his children’s tuition and summer camp to yoga lessons. His bid-rigging scheme with city contractor Bobby Ferguson allegedly netted him hundreds of thousands in kickbacks, and Ferguson over $127 million.

“Kwame Kilpatrick stole money from the city of Detroit,” McQuade said. “While Kwame Kilpatrick enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, he watched the quality of life erode for the people of Detroit. The mayor cheated the system. Kwame Kilpatrick didn’t lead the city; he looted the city. One juror said that she is a Detroiter and voted for [Kilpatrick] twice, but the evidence she saw in this case made her stomach turn.”

While corruption and incompetence are not exclusive to the last decade in Detroit, what happened on the watch of Kilpatrick and four of the current members of the Detroit City Council is stunning.

As Detroit steadily hemorrhaged population and tax revenue and began its current residence in the red, Kilpatrick routinely would issue debts to pay down the growing deficit while drawing up illogical city budgets—approved by council—that would fall woefully short. By 2005, the city was over $100 million in debt, and then-auditor general Joe Harris issued a scathing rebuke of Kilpatrick and the council for their mishandling of the city’s financial issues. Harris, who would eventually become the emergency financial manager (EFM) for nearby Benton Harbor, called the council “one of the most divisive and ineffective legislative bodies” in the city’s history.

“Had city government officials developed budgets beyond one year, along with plans to address the projected shortfalls, this crisis could have been forestalled,” Harris said in 2005. “The five-year forecast I prepared for the city [in 2003] was ignored.” He had made previous attempts to restructure the city’s troubled transportation department that also went ignored. By the time Kilpatrick was gone in 2009, Harris briefly returned to audit the books and discovered that the city’s deficit was nearly three times its reported number and likely had been for years.

With the current council headed to Lansing to make a last-ditch (read: futile) appeal to change Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s mind about appointing an EFM in Detroit as well, one cannot ignore the role Kilpatrick played in the city’s current state. His shady bookkeeping and greed came at the worst possible time for a struggling city. While some Detroiters rejoiced in Kilpatrick’s conviction, many are ready for this chapter of the city’s history to be closed.

“Those people betrayed the trust of this city and I’m so happy the jury found him guilty,” said Detroit resident Asalei Giles, who was in tears outside of the courthouse. “I just wanted to let people know that not everyone in Detroit is pulling for those people that are in power right now. I’m not happy that [Kilpatrick’s] guilty, but he is. It would be a travesty if they had gotten away with this.

“They are encouraging young people to be more lawless. I am for what the Bible says: you will obey the law, or you will pay.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Barack Obama was a first-state senator in 2004. He had served in that role since 1997.